SOCHI, Russia – On the day before the big game, Buffalo’s Patrick Kane made it clear where he stands on the question of the NHL sending its players to the Olympics.
“In the long run, it’s good for the game, good for hockey,” Kane said. “Anyone who doesn’t see it that way is crazy.”
Anyone who watched that show on Saturday would surely agree. Russia and the U.S. played a hockey game that thrilled the world and dignified their sport, a gripping affair that was a powerful advertisement for keeping NHL stars in the Games.
The Americans prevailed, 3-2, in a bizarre shootout that featured T.J. Oshie, who has never scored 20 goals in an NHL season, scoring four times on six shots, while one of the best offensive players of all time, Alex Ovechkin, sat nailed to the bench.
You hardly know where to begin with this epic contest, which had been called the most significant ever played on Russian soil before it even began. It featured speed and skill, a raucous home crowd, great goaltending, players sacrificing their bodies to block shots.
It also contained controversy when a late Russian goal was waved off because the U.S. net had been nudged slightly off its moorings – leading Ovechkin and Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov to suggest that Jonathan Quick had done it purposely.
“I don’t know what happened there, but definitely was a goal,” Ovechkin said. “Nobody touched the net. Their goalie touched the net and put it out. But the referee has to see it and at least give him two minutes, you know?”
Quick, who is known for pulling a fast one on occasion, said he didn’t know how the net came off. However it occurred, the international rules leave no leeway. It’s no goal, and it would be a shame if it took away from a terrific game.
“It certainly was a great game,” said U.S. coach Dan Bylsma. “This game had pretty much everything, in an unbelievable setting and atmosphere. It’s definitely a memorable one. I aged a couple of years in that shootout. But that’s part of the glory.”
Imagine if it had been an elimination game. This is the preliminaries, remember. The U.S. will win its pool and a bye to the quarterfinals if it beats Slovenia today. But it settles nothing. It’ll just be a very fond memory if the Americans get bumped off in the eliminations.
A game like this could help both the U.S. and the Russians, who proved they could function within Bilyaletdinov’s tight, structured system without compromising the physical gifts of players like Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.
The event was made even more dramatic, of course, by the lingering memory of the 1980 Miracle on Ice, when the U.S. stunned the old Soviet Union powerhouse and went on to win the gold medal. The Americans haven’t won it all since 1980.
But the pressure is minuscule compared with the Russians, who are expected to win gold in the first Winter Olympics held on their home soil and affirm their standing as a re-emergent world power.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pushed to hold the games in this Black Sea resort (where it was 81 degrees Saturday) watched the game from a box high above the ice at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
But the real winner was hockey itself. Take away the politics and nationalism and the controversy. What you have is a wonderful, transporting moment for international hockey fans, who can celebrate a day that illuminated the best in their sport.
“It was amazing,” said Kane, who set up the go-ahead U.S. goal in the third period and was stopped on a clean breakaway that could have won the game in overtime. “I don’t think anyone could ask for a better game.
“It was tight at the start, but it opened up as the game went on, especially in the third period, and you saw some more chances. It was just a fun game to be a part of, fun to play in, great atmosphere and a great finish, too.”
Oh, and the fun began earlier in the day, when tiny Slovenia beat Slovakia for the first Olympic hockey win in its history. Slovenia is in the field for the first time since gaining its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
So before Gary Bettman and the NHL honchos decide to skip the 2018 Games in South Korea, they should pop this game into the video machine. Think about what you’re giving up by not showing your best to the world every four years, when you have a rapt audience.
The NHL talks about a World Cup in the summer, when it wouldn’t have to shut down the season for three weeks. I’m sorry, I can’t see people in Buffalo getting up at 6 a.m. and flocking to the bars to watch the hockey World Cup in July.
The Olympics have a singular, quadrennial charm. The Games have a unique, unifying spirit that draws in casual fans in a way other events simply can’t. Think about what 1980 did for hockey in the U.S., or what the Dream Team did for basketball around the world.
I was told that the hockey wouldn’t be very good here because the players had to go halfway around the world. You wouldn’t know it from the first two U.S. games, or that amazing spectacle on Saturday.
Datsyuk was supposed to be hurt, but he was the best player on the ice, a two-way marvel. Defenseman Ryan Suter was a horse for the Americans. Kane had an uneven performance, but every time he’s on the ice, you expect something to happen. Even the staunchest Ryan Miller fan had to admit Jonathan Quick was terrific in goal.
When Kane took a breakaway pass at center ice midway through the five-minute overtime, it took your breath away. Kane swept in on Sergei Bobrovsky and tried to beat him between the legs, but Bobrovsky denied him.
“I thought I had enough speed to try to beat him five-hole between the legs,” Kane said. “Looking back, I thought I could have made a different move on it. It would have been nice to finish it.”
Well, it made for an even better finish when the teams finished the four-on-four overtime without settling matters. I know a lot of people don’t care for shootouts. Four-on-four OT is great, but I love shootouts, too.
There’s nothing like seeing a player skate purposefully to center ice and collect the puck to initiate a shootout attempt, especially in an event of this magnitude. I’ll never forget Peter Forsberg winning gold for Sweden in Lillehammer, or Dominik Hasek stoning the Canadians four years later.
Like a lot of writers, I wasn’t aware you could send the same shooter out after the first three rounds. It was odd, seeing Oshie go out there six times. I’d rather see different players try it. At least limit a shooter to once every three rounds.
But after a classic like this, criticizing the shootout format is like questioning a comma in “War and Peace.” By the time Oshie beat Bobrovsky for the fourth time to end it, you wondered how much more you could take. Chances are, there will be a lot more drama before this hockey tournament ends a week from today. So set your alarms and head for Cole’s, or wherever it is you’re watching this stuff.
You’d have to be crazy to miss it.