This in no way is a repeat of 1980, but USA men’s hockey is writing some script at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
The Americans completed a perfect preliminary round on Sunday morning, defeating Germany 3-2 to win Group A and earn an automatic bye to the quarterfinal stages Olympics’ ice hockey tournament. Their next opponent will be deciphered when the No. 5-No. 12 seeds play an elimination playoff round that sees the four winners advance to the quarterfinals.
“It’s huge. It proves that we can win these close games and down the road, that’s going to be big for us,” Nathan Smith, who scored the United States’ all-important third goal, told NBC after the game. “It’s a big momentum shift for us. It’s nice to have that bye and not play in the qualifying round.”
Entering the tournament, the United States was listed as the No. 6 favorites to win the gold medal after the NHL opted not to send its stars to the Winter Games for the second-straight games — the first featuring a weak American team that was bounced from the 2018 Olympics in the quarterfinal round after qualifying via the playoffs.
They are the youngest team in the tournament, featuring five 19-year-olds and 15 current collegiate players. As it happened 42 years ago, though, inexperience doesn’t matter. The Americans outscored their opponents 15-4 in the preliminary round, which included a come-from-behind triumph against Germany to wrap things up in the first stage of the competition.
“We have a lot of young guys, but we’re a mature team,” Smith said. “Our leadership group, the older guys, they do a good job of getting us younger guys going.”
Germany took the lead just two minutes into the game when Patrick Hager slotted a power-play opportunity. It was the second-straight game the Americans conceded an early goal, conceding the opening goal just 1:24 into their 4-2 win over Canada on Friday.
But the US found another quick reply as they did against the Canadians as Steven Kampfer tied it up just 2:26 after Hager’s opener for the Germans.
Matthew Knies put the US ahead 4:50 into the second period when he was able to clean up a wraparound attempt by Nick Abruzzese that slid right in front of Germany’s net.
They doubled their lead with another early goal in the third when Nathan Smith jumped on a loose puck in front of the German goal thanks to a strong American forecheck — slotting a backhander past Danny Aus Den Birken.
“I was just trying to be hard on the forecheck,” Smith said. “Just bounced right to the middle and I tried to hammer it away.”
Germany did provide some last-minute anxiety from the Americans when they pulled within one with 2:29 remaining thanks to a goal from former Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders forward, Tom Kuhnhackl.
With their net empty, Germany made one final big push, including a golden chance for former Edmonton Oiler and Chicago Blackhawk, Dominik Kahun. His wrister from the right slot with 20 seconds to go gave American netminder Drew Commesso one last scare, but he did just enough to swat the chance away from danger to cap off a 24-save effort.
Now the Americans, who played three games in four days, have an opportunity to take a short break before the quarterfinals, which already feature the Russian Olympic Committee, Sweden, and Finland.
“I think we can clean up our D-zone a little bit,” Smith said on what the Americans will work. “But just rest and get our legs ready to go for the quarters.”