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The goaltenders making their debuts in the Sochi Games in the round-robin game Sunday between the United States and Slovenia both enjoyed international success in 2010. The American Ryan Miller won a silver medal at the Vancouver Olympics and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
The Slovenian Luka Gracnar was on the inline hockey team that placed fifth in Sweden at the World Championships.
Miller, 33, made his National Hockey League entrance with the Buffalo Sabres when he was 22, and won the Vezina Trophy in 2010. Gracnar, 20, whose dream is to one day play in the NHL, has already cradled the Stanley Cup. His countryman Anze Kopitar, a forward for the Los Angeles Kings, brought the trophy to their hometown Jesenice after the Kings beat the New Jersey Devils in the 2012 Finals.
The gap in experience between Miller and Gracnar was glaring, but no more so than the divide between the seasoned American skaters and their counterparts from Slovenia, which was competing in the Olympics for the first time.
Gracnar, who plays for E.C. Red Bull in Salzburg, Austria, was not prepared for the speed of the American forward Phil Kessel, who flew in from the neutral zone and fired the first shot of the game, with 64 seconds gone, into the back of the net. He scored again in the fifth minute and finished with a natural hat trick, and Miller made 17 saves as the Americans cruised to a 5-1 win at Shayba Arena. Kessel’s hat trick was the first by an American since John LeClair scored three goals against Finland at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
Miller, who sat without complaint as Jonathan Quick started the first two games, lost his shutout bid with 18 seconds remaining in the game. Marcel Rodman scored on a screened shot, a goal Miller described as “unfortunate.” He said he wanted the shutout “pretty bad.”
In the big picture, the win was all that mattered. Though Miller was fresh, he could tell that his teammates in front of him, who defeated Russia in a shootout 24 hours earlier, were struggling. “You can see some fatigue setting in,” he said. “That’s why it was important to win today.”
The difficulty of getting back up to play the day after an emotionally charged game was born out by the Russians, who were extended to a shootout by Slovakia in a contest that started at the Bolshoi Ice Dome at the same time as the United States vs. Slovenia.
Russia’s Alexander Radulov, whose play against the Americans was roundly criticized, and the veteran Ilya Kovalchuk, formerly of the New Jersey Devils, got consecutive shots past the Slovakia goaltender, Jan Laco, in the shootout to secure the 1-0 victory.
Slovenia, a 3-1 winner over Slovakia on Saturday, also had to guard against a letdown. The win, its first in Olympic competition, was a major achievement for a country that has seven hockey rinks and fewer than 200 registered senior-level players.
Kopitar is the only Slovenian player who is in the NHL, and he missed the third period because of a stomach virus that sapped his energy. He did not have a shot in the 11 minutes 31 seconds he spent on the ice.
The Slovenians were also without Sabahudin Kovacevic, second to Kopitar in minutes in the first two games, who received a one-game suspension for a hard elbow to the neck of Slovakia’s Tomas Kopecky.
Kopitar’s father, Matjaz, is the Slovenian coach, and he made no apologies for starting Gracnar, who made 23 saves, over the 30-year-old Robert Kristan, who had a save percentage of .905 in the first two games.
While the United States is playing for the gold medal here, Slovenia is playing for the future, one that it hopes includes many more Olympic appearances.
“His goals in hockey are high, also,” Matjaz Kopitar said, referring to Gracnar. “We just gave him a chance. He deserved it. I hope he’s going to get something from this game. I hope he learns how to play against these superstars.”
Gracnar said it was “kind of a dream come true” to get the start against the Americans. “It’s a good experience for me to see where I am, to see if I can compete against these guys.”
When Miller was Gracnar’s age, he was at Michigan State testing himself against the best competition in the Big Ten. He said he could not imagine facing at 20 the likes of Kessel and T?.J. Oshie, the shootout star against Russia who received the loudest cheer during the player introductions.
“It’s quite a big jump for a young player like that,” Miller said. “It’s impressive.”
In the 24 hours since his star turn in the American team’s 3-2 shootout victory against Russia, Oshie experienced quite a leap in popularity. He gained more than 100,000 followers on Twitter and received a congratulatory tweet from President Barack Obama.
“How can you top that one?” Oshie said.
Dan Bylsma, the U.S. coach, said he pulled Oshie aside after Saturday’s game and playfully reminded him, “You’re going to have to play again, tomorrow, you know.”
Against Slovenia, Oshie picked up an assist on the Americans’ fourth goal, by Ryan McDonagh, killed penalties with his usual aplomb and logged 14:40.
Oshie seemed to be taking his celebrity in stride. “People are probably going to be bored by my tweets,” he said, “and hit the unfollow button.”