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Ryan Donato helps the U.S. take a key step forward in win over Slovakia

U.S. center Ryan Donato celebrates after scoring his second goal against Slovakia during a game Friday at the Gangneung Hockey Centre.
(Jamie Squire / Getty Images)

There wasn’t anything too fancy or technical about what the U.S. men’s hockey team needed to do Friday afternoon.

After a disappointing overtime loss to start these 2018 Winter Olympics, the Americans knew they had to give a full 60 minutes’ effort against Slovakia.

“We just continued to keep our foot on the gas,” forward Jordan Greenway said. “We didn’t let up in the third period.”

That meant chasing down loose pucks and working their way to the front of the net. It meant playing defense and killing a crucial penalty.

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Most importantly, the U.S. got a game-winner from Ryan Donato — his second goal of the game — to finish with a 2-1 victory at Gangneung Hockey Centre.

It might not have been a do-or-die situation, but Friday was definitely a crucial moment after what happened earlier in the week.

In the opener against Slovenia, the U.S. built a two-goal lead but seemed to lose energy at the end. Maybe nerves played a role as Slovenia fought back to win 3-2 in extra time.

“I was worried and the other coaches were worried,” coach Tony Granato said. “I wondered how many guys slept the night before thinking that, oh my gosh, we blew something.”

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That first loss certainly proved that nothing is going to come easily for this team.

The NHL’s refusal to interrupt its season schedule for the Olympics has robbed the U.S. and other national squads of their top stars. This, in effect, has evened the talent across the board.

The Americans showed up with a team of college players and guys past 30 who were gleaned from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and second-tier leagues throughout Europe.

Among the youngsters, Donato has quickly emerged as a potential star.

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On Friday, he started things off early in the first period.

With U.S. on a power play, forward Troy Terry drove toward two defenders, then left the puck for Donato, who snapped a low shot past Slovakian goaltender Jan Laco on the blocker side. There might have been some genetics at work on the play, or at least good fatherly advice.

Donato’s dad, Ted, was a star in the 1992 Albertville Olympics and offered a tip on the phone the other day.

“He said, ‘Don’t shoot so high anymore. Shoot low,’” the younger Donato recalled.

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If that goal — just seven minutes into the game — helped the U.S. shake off bad memories from the other night, the good feeling did not last long.

Just seconds later, Slovakia’s Tomas Surovy flicked a seemingly harmless pass toward the net from deep in the corner. Andrej Kudrna tipped the puck, which dribbled past goaltender Ryan Zapolski to tie the score.

“It was bad positioning by me,” Zapolski said. “My fault obviously.”

There have been questions about the U.S. squad and its propensity for uneven play.

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The roster was put together not too far in advance of the Games, after the NHL stuck to its decision not to participate. The players did not have a lot of time to gel.

But Granato said he felt good about his team’s mood and, after a scoreless second period, he liked the way his players emerged from the locker room to finish the game.

“The experience we gained from losing that lead in Game 1 was, we had to play differently tonight,” the coach said. “We had to stay on the attack a little more.”

Donato’s winning shot came at the start of the third period.

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Taking a pass just to the left of the crease, he suddenly wheeled around and slipped the puck between Laco’s pads. It was a lightning strike of a play.

“That was a goal-scorer’s goal,” Terry said. “He can finish like no one else.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter

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