A two-day triple header ended on Sunday (6 March) at the Para ice hockey Paralympic tournament with hosts China and defending champions USA booking their places in the next round of the Beijing 2022 Games.
With Canada having a day off in Group A, USA and South Korea met for the fourth time in the Winter Paralympic Games.
TICKET TO THE SEMIS
The three-time Paralympic champions secured their semifinal spot with an ominously good performance against the PyeongChang 2018 bronze medallists South Korea.
A first period hat-trick from Jack Wallace set them on the way to a 9-1 victory. The bad news for their next opponents is they now have five days of practice, while waiting for the definition of the other three semifinalists.
"Our coach has had this mentality of compete-level through the past season or two. What he will say is no team competes harder in practice than we do," Wallace said.
"It prepares us for games really well when the practices end up being harder than some of the games."
After getting off to a brilliant start in the first period scoring five unanswered goals, Team USA scored four more in the second period to finish things off. Malik Jones, making only his second international appearance, scored two goals in the second period.
Coach David Hoff took out goalie Jen Lee in third period to give the chance to Griffin Lamarre. The 25-year-old conceded a goal early in the last period, but did well until the end of the game. Seung Hwan Jung scored Korea's only goal.
US players made 39 shots on South Korea's goal with Jae Woong Lee and Hyuk Jun Choi saving 30 of them. On the other side, Koreans only managed three shots on the US goal.
Captain Josh Pauls made his 17th appearance at the Paralympic Winter Games. That is the most by any US Para ice hockey player in Paralympic history.
Pauls made his Paralympic debut at the Vancouver 2010 and made three more appearances, winning three consecutive golds until Beijing 2022.
CRYING FROM THE TENSION
Italy and Slovakia both admitted to training all year for their Group B matchup and the spectacle was more than worthy of such attention — even if it did prove too much for the nerves of several of the victorious Italians.
After 45 minutes of non-stop action and 5 minutes of sudden-death overtime — including a first-ever Paralympic goal for Slovakia and a late third-period Italian equaliser — it all came down to the first penalty shootout of these Games.
Even the regulation three shots per side were not enough to separate the two teams, ranked seventh (Italy) and eighth (Slovakia) in the world.
"I was crying at the end from the tension," Italy defenceman Andrea Macri said.
He was not the only one who struggled to hold it together when 24-year-old Nils Larch stepped up to take the fourth penalty for Italy with the whole stadium aware a successful strike would secure victory.
"I was blank," Alex Enderle, Larch's best friend, said. "I wasn't even sure if I needed to watch it or if I could watch."
He needed not to worry.
Larch knocked it in with the calmness of a man who later simply said, "I just like to take penalty shootouts".
The forward was not the only hero in blue. Ahead of the game, 39-year-old Julian Kasslatter had never before stepped on Paralympic ice, but he was thrust into the spotlight after first-choice goaltender Gabriele Araudo was forced off with an injury early in the third period.
Two shootout saves later, Macri made a point of singling him out for thanks.
"It was beautiful, very exciting. I really like penalty shootouts," Kasslatter said. "I do them often in training. It's great to know we are not going home yet."
CHINA GOES THROUGH
With Slovakia's David Korman scoring 10 seconds before the end of the second period, Italy had to go with an all-out-attack approach in the third period.
That paid off six minutes before the final buzzer when Gianluigi Rosa scored a beauty into the top corner of Eduard Lepacek's goal.
Slovakian goalie finished the game with 22 saves compared to only 11 from Araudo and Kasslatter combined. Unlucky for Lepacek, Kasslatter shootout save will be remembered from this game.
In the final game of the day China made it two wins from two, beating Czech Republic 5-2.
After a goalless first period, China took over the reigns and scored three goals in three minutes at the start of the second period.
They added two more in the next 12 minutes of the second period and went into the last third of the game with 5-1 lead. Alex Ohar and Zdenek Krupicka scored consolation goals for the Czech Republic.
The Czechs lost their first-choice goalie Martin Kudela due to an injury in the second period. Kudela and Michal Vapenka saved 16 Chinese shots together.
Unlike in the first game against Slovakia where Yifeng Shen played a big role, scoring four goals, Team China put a more versatile performance against the Czechs.
Five different players scored five goals, including one from Shen, who now has five in the tournament.
"It was the first time we faced these opponents and our job was to work so hard and try our best and give the spectators a good game and show the whole world the Chinese athletes can also do this," said Hongguan Li, one of the five scorers.
ACTION RETURNS ON TUESDAY
With the second triumph in as many games, China qualified for the qualifying finals on 10 March. If they finish first in Group B, they will play against the second placed team in their group again.
Monday is a day off in the National Indoor Stadium with the preliminary round action concluding on Tuesday (8 March).
Canada will play South Korea for a direct place in the semifinals in Group A, while China will go against Italy and Slovakia against Czech Republic.
Live results from Beijing 2022 will be available on Paralympic.org. You can follow all the action, behind the scenes and news on World Para Ice Hockey social media channels on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.