SOCHI, Russia — You follow sports for decades, you see it happen time after time, and still you fall into the same old trap.
When an offensively gifted team is flying high, dominating lesser teams in its path, it creates an inflated air of destiny, a false sense of how good they really are. A good point of reference for Buffalo fans would be the Bills team that lost in Super Bowl XXV.
The U.S. men’s hockey team looked like the one to beat through their first four games. They jumped on teams, zipped through the neutral zone, used their speed to attack opposing defenses. Aside from Russia, no one could touch them. They looked like the favorite to win gold.
Then the Canadians showed up, and it all changed Friday night at Bolshoy Ice Dome. A team that was bigger, tougher and smarter, and pretty fast itself, neutralized the Americans’ speed and made them look like a baffled, disjointed mess in the Olympic semifinals.
Canada won, 1-0, advancing to Sunday’s gold-medal game against Sweden and dashing the USA’s golden dreams for the second Olympics in a row. The Americans will play Finland for the bronze at 7 p.m. today. It’s for a medal, but I don’t detect any great patriotic surge back in the States.
The semifinal had to be a bummer for avid hockey fans in the U.S. It wasn’t that the Americans lost, it was that they completely lost a sense of who they were. I don’t care if they had 31 shots. They were offensively inept, a big letdown on the big ice sheet.
“We didn’t show up to play,” said defenseman Ryan Suter, who has been their best player in the Games. “It’s kind of frustrating. We sat back, we were passive. You can’t play scared. I thought we sat on our heels and just didn’t take it to them at all.
“We had motivation,” Suter said. “We just didn’t take it on the ice.”
Suter said this defeat stung even more than the OT loss for the gold four years ago in Vancouver. The expectations were higher this time around. They raised the standard even more by winning their first four games and scoring the most goals of any team in the tournament.
So to go out this way, failing to score a goal and demonstrating no coherent offensive plan, was pretty discouraging. Players were trying to create on their own. They played the sort of aimless hockey you associate with teams early in the Games, not in the semifinals.
“They played that grinding kind of game a little better than we did,” said forward David Backes, who was outfoxed on Jay Bouwmeester’s feed that set up Jamie Benn for the game’s lone goal early in the second period.
“We didn’t do enough to get traffic in front and find second and third chances,” Backes said. “We’ve been scoring around the paint all tournament and we didn’t do that tonight. The result is” that Canada goalie Carey Price “sees pucks, catches them, kills plays, gets faceoffs and we don’t get that sustained zone time we need to score goals.”
That sums it up fairly well. The game had a fast, frenetic and, at times, riveting pace. U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said it was the fastest pace of any game he’s ever coached. But it favored Canada, which used speed intelligently and took away the center of the ice from the Americans.
There was a lot of talk about the U.S. speed coming in (much of it from Bylsma). But Canada was happy to dictate the pace after facing the plodding Latvians in the quarterfinals. They played a more fluid brand of hockey and backchecked the U.S. forwards into countless mistakes.
“I think we were the first team that could skate with them in this tournament,” said Canada’s Matt Duchene. “Even the Russians didn’t play them as hard as we did. We’ve got such a commitment to backchecking and being hard to play against.’’
Canada’s stars showed they could play two-way hockey. Their defensemen were sensational, but it was the size and strength of their forwards that stifled the Americans. The Canadians have eight forwards who are 6-foot-2 or larger. That tends to make the big sheet of ice seem a lot smaller.
“Even the most offensive minded players in the league were defensive tonight,” said Canadian defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic. “We played great defense.”
What was it Lindy Ruff used to call it, playing out of character? Ruff is the defensive coach on Mike Babcock’s Team Canada staff. He had a way of sucking the offensive life out of a game. This resembled one of the countless 2-1 playoff games his Sabres teams played through the years.
Hey, it works. No one said Canada-USA had to be an offensive classic. It was gripping in its way, but for sheer offensive entertainment value, it was a dud. It was no fun watching the U.S. get turned back at the blue line, flip harmless shots at the goalie, or overpass on the power play.
I’m not about to question Byslma for playing Jonathan Quick over Ryan Miller now. Quick was the best U.S. player Friday. He kept them in it, stopping 36 of 37 shots, and a lot of them were tough saves, too.
Patrick Kane’s line had the most ice time for the U.S., as Bylsma tried desperately to find some offense. Kane had his moments, but seemed frustrated at times. He doesn’t face teams that big and fast and determined in the NHL. The power play was simply dreadful.
“Yeah, you could say that,” Kane said. “When you get” three power plays, “you expect to score one. This stinks. It’s tough. All of us thought we’d be in a different situation right now.”
Yeah. Who gets excited to bring the gang together at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning to watch the boys battle for bronze?