Casey Mittelstadt is making plenty of friends in Buffalo, but even his heroics couldn't save Team USA from a 3-2 upset loss to Slovakia in the preliminary round of the World Junior Championship.
It appeared Mittelstadt single-handily halted disaster with a highlight reel equalizer after Slovakia took a 2-1 lead in the final five minutes of the third. It turns out, he just delayed the letdown.
Slovakia's Samuel Bucek answered with two minutes and eight seconds remaining, crushing the American spirits with his tenaciousness. He carried the puck into the zone but wasn't able to find an angle on American goalie Joseph Woll. He went for a backhand wrap-around attempt but was stopped.
His third attempt was the game winner, another backhanded shot that sneaked past two American defenders and a sprawling Woll. Slovakia, which lost 6-0 in its tournament opener to Canada, bested the heavily-favored United States.
"We never really thought that we could beat the USA, but we've done that," Bucek said. "We've been playing very patient and we stuck with the process and we did the right things on the ice."
When the U.S. practiced at New Era Field Wednesday afternoon, head coach Bob Motzko preached about not looking past Thursday's game and toward the outdoor rivalry game with Canada. This was why.
"Going into the tournament, you know you're going to have a game or two like this where it's kind of a dogfight," Mittelstadt said. "Obviously there's some plays that we've got to make and we've got to be better. ... You've got to realize the stage and realize you can't take anyone for granted."
Slovakia scored the first goal of the game in the second period off a 2-on-1 opportunity. U.S. defenseman Quinn Hughes got caught up ice, causing the odd-man rush for the Slovaks. Filip Krivosik opted to shoot rather than pass and beat Woll between the legs.
The Americans had little luck early in the game, failing to corral a handful of pucks on rebound opportunities. Slovakia was successful limiting Team USA's shots to low-percentage areas.
When the U.S. did get good looks, Slovakian goalie Roman Durny answered. He was busy in net, making 43 saves.
"He was outstanding," Bucek said. "If he wasn't in that net tonight, we probably wouldn't win. Tonight was his game."
Brady Tkachuk, who scored in KeyBank Center during the All-American Prospects Game in September, scored the equalizer for the U.S. midway through the second period.
He got out on a 2-on-1 rush with Montreal Canadiens prospect Ryan Poeling, who possessed the puck as the pair entered the zone. Poeling found Tkachuk with a perfectly timed saucer pass. Tkachuk went to the backhand and snuck the puck five-hole on Durny.
Krivosik put Slovakia up 2-1 with his second goal of the game with four minutes and 45 seconds remaining in regulation. A Slovakian pass went off a U.S. defender but redirected right to him. He shot while spinning from his backhand, finding the top left corner.
The loss overshadows Mittelstadt's goal, a masterful display of individual effort. He forced a turnover at the Slovakian blue line with a backcheck, deked out a Slovak defender with a backhand move and brought it back forehand just in time to get past a falling Durny. He buried the puck into the open net.
"I think I got pretty lucky," Mittelstadt said. "I got a nice bounce to get a rush in. I just kind of made a move. Sometimes you get lucky and get one like that. Obviously, it's disappointing not finding a way to get a win there."
The crowd was underwhelming but an improvement from the earlier Sweden vs. Czech Republic game. There were no more than two dozen fans in the 300 level and large chunks of empty seats behind both nets.
The Americans have a quick turnaround for Friday's 3 p.m. game against Canada at New Era Field. Their northern rivals will have rested legs, as Canada last played Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Mittelstadt said the closeness of the next game could help the team after a loss like this.
"That could definitely be a benefit, especially if we come out ready to go," Mittelstadt said. "We've got to turn the page quick."