GJOVIK, Norway — If acrobatics were an Olympic sport, U.S. hockey players would have already clinched a place on the podium.
Whether they will win a medal in the hockey tournament is less certain.
Teetering toward a loss to Slovakia and likely elimination from medal contention Tuesday, the United States needed a series of contortions and two favorable calls to keep its balancing act aloft. Finally, John Lilley's goal from a sharp angle on the right wing eluded goaltender Eduard Hartmann with 4:07 to play, forging a 3-3 tie that was eerily like Saturday's 4-4 draw with France.
In each of its games, the sixth-seeded U.S. team faced a lesser opponent that rode emotion and a sound game plan to unexpected heights. And in each game, only a late and potentially stoppable goal kept the Americans undefeated. The ties leave the United States and Slovakia sharing third place in Group B, two points behind Canada (2-0) and one behind Sweden (1-0-1).
"We must be somewhat of a high-wire act," said U.S. Coach Tim Taylor, smiling in relief.
"I'm very proud of the way we've come back from two-goal deficits in two consecutive games. It shows we have a lot of heart. The thing we have to work on in general is not putting ourselves in that position. Youthful enthusiasm is one of our strengths and it has to be there the whole game. You can't just rely on it at the end."
Nor can they rely on the kinds of breaks they got Tuesday.
Slovakia had two goals disallowed and was forced to play shorthanded for 13:45, including a stretch in the third period when Peter Stastny was assessed a five-minute penalty for high-sticking Craig Johnson and two more minutes for punching Peter Ferraro. After going scoreless on seven power plays against France and five against Slovakia, the United States finally capitalized on its advantage and cut the deficit to 3-2 when Peter Ciavaglia parked himself by the right post and converted Mark Beaufait's pass at 14:23.
"You don't want to be going down to the third period down one or two goals, but we can look at this as a positive experience," Ciavaglia said. "Everybody's upbeat because we know we haven't played our best hockey yet. Obviously, we don't want to keep putting ourselves in a hole, but if it does happen again, we know we can bounce back."
Slovakia, playing with a passion the Americans have lacked, bounced back easily and often after U.S. left wing Jeff Lazaro blasted a slap shot through Hartmann's leg pads at 10:23 of the first period. Slovakia tied it at 13:55, when Lubomir Kolnik's wrist shot from the left side of the slot skipped past Garth Snow, and took an apparent lead at 16:37 of the second period when Lubomir Sekeras' shot from the top of the left circle flew over Snow's left shoulder. However, referee Valery Bokarev, a Russian, ruled that Robert Svehla had interfered with Snow and waved off the goal.
Stastny gave Slovakia an unquestioned goal at 19:24, skating unchecked out of the right-wing corner after Ted Drury and Chris Imes collided, then slipping the puck past Snow's outstretched stick. A potential 3-1 lead for Slovakia was erased at 4:23 of the third when Bokarev ruled that Oscar Hascak had kicked a rebound past Snow, but Svehla's later conversion of a shot that had bounced off Drury's foot was above reproach.
"I don't think Slovakia is (as weak as) a 12th-seeded team," U.S. captain Peter Laviolette said. "They clogged up the neutral zone and made it very difficult for us to get our offense rolling. . . . I'd be lying if I didn't say I thought we were a little nervous, a little tense. But that's to be expected when you're down two goals halfway through the game. We had to work darn hard to get two points out of these games."
Said Stastny, a six-time NHL All-Star with the Quebec Nordiques: "We spend half the game shorthanded, we have two goals disallowed and despite that I'm very proud of this team. If we end up like this, we'll win the gold medal."
Slovakia's players were not overly impressed with their U.S. counterparts. Tuesday's game was the second against the United States for defenseman Jergus Baca, who plays for the International Hockey League's Milwaukee Admirals and was on the winning side of a 5-1 rout of the U.S. team on Sept. 29 at Milwaukee.
"I give them credit that they came back from 3-1 to tie, but I think the referee helped them," Baca said.
Snow, who stopped 12 of 13 first-period shots, said he and his teammates are encouraged rather than discouraged by their first two performances. "We're pretty high right now," he said. "In the early going, all we have to worry about is accumulating some points, and we are. We haven't lost yet."