The Olympics are underway without NHL players taking the ice for the first time since 1998. After just one game, the impact of not having NHLers on the ice reared its ugly head for the United States when a young team of future NHLers couldn’t manage to close the door on Slovenia in their Olympic opener. The team of Russians, designated as the Olympic Athletes from Russia, also suffered a disappointing loss in their opener, making for a wide-open pool.

The United States had a 2-0 lead going to the third period, but Slovenia rallied in the final period, tied the game with just over a minute to play after pulling the goalie from the net, and then scored a game-winner in overtime to grab a big win.

How big of a setback is this for the United States? It’s a pretty devastating one out of the gate. Slovenia is a nation that did not qualify for the Olympics from 1998 through 2010 and then finished in seventh in the 2014 games in Sochi. This is Slovenia’s second Olympic appearance in the men’s hockey tournament, and they are the 15th-ranked nation in the world according to the 2017 IIHF World Ranking. The United States arrived at the Olympics ranked fifth in the world, behind Canada, Russia, Sweden, and Finland.

Russia may not be in the Olympics in an official capacity, but the hockey team of Russians playing under the Olympic Athletes from Russia banner are still a strong favorite in the Olympics. Like the United States, the absence of NHL players may have been a setback after the Russian team came up short in their opener against Slovakia. And like the United States, the Russians also managed to blow a 2-0 lead.

Opening pool play with losses is a major hurdle for both the United States and the Russians, but it is still too early to pack it in for either team. The next games for these two teams may be must-win games (United States vs. Slovakia and OAR vs. Slovenia on Friday), because the Americans and Russians face off in the final game of pool play on Saturday. Every team will advance to the next round, but the top team in each pool automatically qualifies for the quarterfinals and the second top team has a shot to go right to the quarterfinals. Avoiding the quarterfinal playoffs is the goal, and perhaps the expectation for the United States and Russia, but that is in jeopardy just one game into the tournament.

We’ll see if Canada, Sweden, and Finland can avoid similar disasters in their first games of the men’s hockey tournament in the next two days. But for now, it sure seems as though not having NHL players in the Olympics has leveled the playing field for the international hockey tournament.

[Photo: @NHLonNBCSports]

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Previously contributed to Host of the Locked On Nittany Lions Podcast. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.