SOCHI, Russia — As you’re aware, living in a town that watches more avidly than any other in the United States, hockey is a sport of energy and emotion. When the stakes are high, there’s no other sport in which the coaches and players talk more about passion. ≈ The U.S. men’s team wanted to believe it cared about the Olympic bronze medal Saturday night. They talked about it in the hours leading up to the game with Finland. They made the requisite speeches in the dressing room about how winning a medal truly mattered. ≈ They played that way at the start, too. But the crushing events of the night before were never far from their thoughts. The Americans had not come to Russia to win a bronze, or a silver. There was only one genuine goal, and that was winning gold, winning it all.
So when they fell behind, 1-0, on a goal by 43-year-old legend Teemu Selanne, you could see the life going out of them. You could sense the emotional devastation of Friday’s 1-0 loss to the Canadians seeping back into their consciousness, into the heads and their hands and their bones.
You can only manufacture so much passion. Anyone who watched Saturday’s game could see it. Once the veil was lifted and the memory of the semifinal reappeared, the Americans lost whatever motivation they had for finishing third. And they got smoked.
Finland, which had lost, 6-1, to the U.S. in the semifinals four years ago in Vancouver, played with much more purpose and desire and repaid the U.S. for 2010 with a similar embarrassment, thrashing the Americans, 5-0, to win bronze. The Finns are the only nation to win men’s hockey medals in five of the last six Olympics.
“Maybe it was an emotional and physical letdown,” said Brooks Orpik. “My legs didn’t feel the best today. But that’s just like the playoffs back home. You’ve got to work through that. Sometimes you don’t feel your best. I’m sure some of the guys on our team didn’t feel their best.”
There’s one notable difference between the Olympics and the Stanley Cup. When your Cup dreams are dashed, you go home. You’re done until the following fall. But in the Olympics, if you lose in the semifinals, you have to come back the very next day and play for third place.
It’s almost inhumane. Back-to-backs are difficult for hockey players in the best of times. These guys are competitors. But they’re also millionaires, and once the NHL players see their gold-medal hopes go up in flames, it must be hard for them to come back on 24 hours notice.
“Losing that game took a lot out of us,” said U.S. coach Dan Bylsma, “and we weren’t able to get back and respond in this game. Through four games in this tournament, our team had played very well.
“The fifth game took a lot out of us,” Bylsma said. “It took a lot out of us emotionally. We couldn’t get back to that in this game. We had opportunities. We had chances in the first period that would have put us up in the game, but we didn’t get them.”
Buffalo native Patrick Kane was the prime reflection of the Americans’ woes. Kane played well enough early. He created scoring chances. But as the game wore on, misfortune stalked him at every turn.
Kane missed two penalty shots, one a backhand that was turned aside by Finnish goalie Tuukka Rask, the other a wrister that rang off the right post. He had two minor penalties. Kane’s frustration was plainly evident for the second consecutive night.
“Yeah, it was a frustrating night,” Kane said, “probably one of the most frustrating games I’ve been a part of. I thought I had chances. I thought I was moving pretty good and setting up plays. You get two penalty shots, and you think you’re going to score on one of them.
“I think the first one, the puck rolled up on me,” he added, “and the second one hit the post. It’s frustrating, to say the least.”
Kane didn’t score a goal in the entire tournament. It wasn’t an issue through the first four games, when the U.S. scored 19 goals – not including the T.J. Oshie shootout extravaganza – and looked like the favorite.
Then they went 138 minutes, nearly seven full periods, without scoring another goal in Sochi. It’s amazing how ordinary many of those American forwards looked against the Canadian and Finnish defenders. You can knock Kane, but at least he showed discernible offensive skill.
“We had all this rhetoric about how we’ve got a hot-collar offense,” said forward David Backes, “but if you don’t score a goal for two games it’s tough to come out of them victorious. They played hard and taught us a very good lesson for 60 minutes there.”
So where do the Americans go from here? Bylsma said it will take a long time to get over the loss to Canada. No one knows whether the NHL will send its players to the 2018 Games in South Korea. So these two losses could be the last Olympic memory for many of these guys.
“It’s a long ways away,” Kane said. “So we’ll see what happens. It’s definitely really frustrating and disappointing right now. But at the same time, I thought we had a really good team. We had a good round robin, played well against the Czechs, then everything kind of turned.
“It was a really, really weird game,” Kane continued. “Nothing you can do about it now. But it was a pleasure playing here. It was awesome being part of the Olympics again. Hopefully, that chance comes again and you can redeem yourself.”