GANGWON, South Korea — Team USA defeated Slovakia, 5-4, in a thrilling shootout victory on Jan. 27 to start their play at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Gangwon 2024.
The group, whose motto has been ‘hard, fast, smart’, hit their stride in the third period, scoring twice and tying the game with 54 seconds left on zane Torre’s power play goal.
During the shootout, players on both sides of the ice were unsucessful in round one. In rounds two and three, Mikey Berchild and AJ Francisco both found the back of the net to secure a victory for Team USA, while netminder Xavier Wendt held strong in net.
Torre had a standout performance, netting two for the stars and stripes, including the game-tying goal, while J.P. Hurlburt and Cole Bumgarner each contributed goals as well. Head coach Joe Bonnett’s squad held solid control of the ice for most of the game, attempting nearly twice as many shots as Slovakia. Wendt tallied 16 saves.
“It’s great to come out with a win,” Torre said. “We fought super hard to get back in that game and we’re extremely happy.”
Torre also set the tone of the match early with a goal just 1:37 into the game. The two countries went goal-for-goal until late in the second period when Slovakia gained a 4-2 advantage thanks to some (un)lucky bounces. Slovakia’s Kristian Reznicak flipped the puck towards Wendt from behind, and the puck soon rolled down the back of Wendt’s jersey and into the net to break the 2-2 tie.
Saturday’s game kicked off Youth Olympic Games play for USA and the crowds are only expected to grow larger, giving the athletes the experience of a lifetime. An announced crowd of 4,056 rowdy fans packed the Gangneung Hockey Center for the matchup against the two countries, celebrating each teams’ goals and close calls.
“It’s electric,” said A.J. Fransisco, who secured the victory with his shootout goal. “It’s an experience you don’t get all the time so with this big of a venue and people filling the stands. It’s unreal.”
The squad arrived in South Korea a few days ago, and the athletes have been enjoying bonding as a team in the village and experiencing South Korean culture. Part of their virtual preparation included learning Korean phrases they have been using to greet staff and thank volunteers. The 17 teenagers represent ten different states and trained together for just a short period of time in California before making the trek to Asia to represent USA Hockey and and Team USA.
“Our expectations are to win a gold medal,” Parker Trottier, team captain and grandson of NHL legend Bryan Trottier, said of the team’s expectations for the rest of the competition.
The athletes will look to take the next step forward to achieve their goal on Monday against Czechia. A win would guarantee a spot in the semifinals. Fans can watch the action on the Olympic Channel and follow the Gangwon 2024 website for updates.