United States hopes of capturing Olympic men's hockey gold for the first time since 1980 were crushed Wednesday with a 3-2 quarter-final shootout loss to the undefeated Czech Republic.
Petr Koukal scored the only goal in a penalty shootout while goaltender Pavel Francouz blanked the Americans to lift the Czechs into the semi-finals.
"They had good moves. I was stretching so much," Francouz said. "We were the lucky 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 quarter-final 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."
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."
- Huge disappointment -
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.
Former NHLer Jim Slater, whose shorthanded breakaway equalised for the Americans in the second period, was dismayed at the finish.
"Disappointed. Frustrated. I feel pretty empty right now. To lose at the Olympics that way is pretty tough," Slater said.
"We thought we were good enough to challenge for a gold medal."
Francouz, who made 18 saves in the game, denied Bobby Butler on the Americans' final chance to seal the triumph but said his toughest shootout stop was on Olympic goals leader Ryan Donato, the Harvard University star who netted his fifth of the tournament in the first period.
"I kind of lost the puck. I was lucky there," Francouz said.
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.
"It's not the ending we wanted but I gained some brothers on this team," US forward Troy Terry said. "It was a life-long experience."
Donato scored off a Terry pass 6:20 into the first period, but Czech defenceman Jan Kolar equalised 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 equaliser.
There were thousands of empty seats, with some whole lower-level sections vacant in the half-full arena.
Other quarter-finals Wednesday will match two-time defending champion Canada against Finland, a medallist in four of the past five Olympics, and undefeated Sweden against Germany.
© 2018 AFP