GANGNEUNG, South Korea: Undefeated Czech Republic knocked the United States out of the Olympic men’s hockey tournament Wednesday, advancing to the semi-finals with a tension-packed 3-2 shootout victory.
American dreams of a first gold medal since 1980 were shattered as Petr Koukal scored the only goal in a penalty shootout while Czech goaltender Pavel Francouz blanked five US sharpshooters.
“It was our dream before the tournament to go this far, but I really hope it’s not the end,” Francouz said. “We can go farther if we keep playing really good as a team.
“We haven’t had any easy games in the tournament. That has made us stronger.”
In search for their first gold medal in 20 years, the Czechs advanced into a Friday matchup against the winner of a later quarterfinals between the Olympic Athletes from Russia and Norway.
“We know we have a tough game in front of us,” Czech captain Martin Erat said. “We have to play our own style and focus on ourselves.”
In the shootout, Koukal faked and when US goaltender Ryan Zapolski moved, flipped the puck past him on the decisive shot.
“I’m so happy it was a goal,” Koukal said. “It’s a big moment for me. I know the Czech people are so happy.”
The sudden ending left the Americans stunned after battling through the game and a 10-minute scoreless over-time.
“It’s a huge disappointment because we were right there,” US captain Brian Gionta said.
Zapolski was gutted as well.
“It’s tough to go that way in an Olympic tournament,” he said. “In that situation it really can go either way and it just didn’t go our way. We competed as hard as we could. We battled to the end.”
Former NHLer Jim Slater, whose shorthanded breakaway equalised for the Americans in the second period, was dismayed as well.
“Disappointed. Frustrated. I feel pretty empty right now,” Slater said. “To lose at the Olympics that way is pretty tough.
“We thought we were good enough to challenge for a gold medal.”
While the NHL’s top stars are absent for the first time since 1994 over money and injury issues, no drama was lacking on a day when four teams ensure playing for a medal and four are sent home empty handed.
“I’m very proud of how we competed, how we played and how we represented our country from the start of the tournament to the end,” US coach Tony Granato said.
Olympic goals leader Ryan Donato scored his fifth of the event 6:20 into the first period, but Czech defenceman Jan Kolar equalized 8:52 later on a blue-line slapshot and defenceman Tomas Kundratek gave the Czechs a 2-1 lead in the second period before Slater’s equalizer.
There were thousands of empty seats, with some whole lower-level sections vacant in the half-full arena.
Other quarterfinals Wednesday will match two-time defending champion Canada against Finland, a medallist in four of the past five Olympics, and undefeated Sweden against Germany.