U.S. needs no miracle on ice, just a lot of T.J. Oshie
The U.S. defeated Russia 3-2 thanks for Oshie's four scores on six attempts in a Winter Olympic shootout at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
The game between two countries, whose hostilities used to go to the brink, was not a metaphor for geopolitical animus. But it was a tit-for-tat thriller that refused to end and kept Americans and Russians in a twitchy state of tension.
Not a single player on the U.S. roster was alive in 1980 when the U.S. shocked the Soviet Union in the semifinals at the Lake Placid Olympics. Only two Russian players were alive when one of sport's all-time epic upsets took place, and they were both 1-year-olds who had not yet learned to skate, or hate.
Yet memories of the old rivalry and the buildup to this rematch imbued Saturday's early-round game with an undeniable intensity. The frenetic pace made fans screaming "Russ-i-ya!" and "Shaybu! Shaybu!" (Goal! Goal!) inside the sold-out Dome go hoarse. The violent collisions made American fans watching the breakfast-time broadcast back home choke on their Wheaties.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who swings a mean stick himself, was in attendance, as were groups of U.S. fans wearing cowboy hats and bandannas.
The shootout, following a scoreless five-minute sudden death period, went eight rounds, suspense building with each shot as players tried to outwit goalies Sergei Bobrovski and Jonathan Quick.
"I aged a couple years during that shootout," said U.S. coach Dan Bylsma.
After Ilya Kovalchuk's shot was blocked by Quick, Bylsma called Oshie's number for the sixth time.
"I was trying to keep the goalie guessing, but I was running out of moves," Oshie said. "It was pretty nerve-wracking, but once the puck hits your stick and you start skating, it's just you and the goalie."
Oshie pushed the puck forward slowly from the middle of the ice, drifted right, juked left and flicked it into the five hole, between Bobrovski's legs.
"My hands are tingling, my feet are tingling," Oshie said.
It was a 21st-century Cold War. Fourteen players on the U.S. roster have an NHL teammate on the Russia roster. They room together, eat together, compete together. In February 1980, six months before the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics because of the Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan, unfamiliarity bred contempt. Russian players did not join the NHL until 1989.
"We don't call them the big, bad Russians because we know a lot of them and play with a lot of them," U.S. captain Zach Parise said.
The propaganda value of victory has been severely downgraded in 34 years. The U.S. and Russian governments have their differences, but everybody is a capitalist these days. Everybody wants gold.
Pride, however, is still at stake, especially for the Russians. Hockey is the national pastime. Russia is playing in its first home Olympic tournament, and it is the medal that matters most to the host country. No athletes are under greater pressure than the Russian hockey players — more pressure than Canadian players felt in Vancouver in 2010.
The Soviet Union's "Big Red Machine" won seven of nine golds from the 1956 Games through 1988. In 1992, one year after the breakup of the U.S.S.R., the Unified Team won gold. But in five Olympics since, Russia has not triumphed, taking only bronze in 2002 and silver in 1998.The Russians were embarrassed 7-3 by Canada in the 2010 quarterfinals. Expectations? Vladimir Tretiak, Russia's general manager, has not been shy about heaping them on his players.
"The entire country will be looking at you," Tretiak wrote in a letter to his team. "In our time, we did everything for the victory. We glorified the U.S.S.R., our people and our sports. Don't let Russia down, guys!"
The hopes of 143 million people are on your shoulder pads!
Tretiak has a score to settle with the U.S. One of the greatest goalies in history must have wished he could have defended the net during Saturday's shootout. He was sent to the bench after giving up one first-period goal to the U.S. in 1980. Russia lost, 4-3. Coach Viktor Tikhonov, now 83, later admitted that pulling Tretiak was a huge mistake.
"In 1980 it was a good lesson that the Americans taught us," Tretiak said. "You have to respect your competitors and only after the game can you tell what you think about them. We did not have the respect for the competitors at that time, but we don't have that during this Olympics."
Tretiak was watching Saturday in the Ice Dome, as was Putin. There were two players who took his mind back to 1980 – Russia's Viktor Tikhonov, the U.S.-raised grandson of Tretiak's old coach, and Ryan Suter, whose father Bob was a defenseman on the U.S. squad of college players.
The U.S. held off a first-period onslaught by Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, then let Pavel Datsyuk break away to score 10 minutes into the second.
The U.S. capitalized on a power play seven minutes later when Cam Fowler scooped the puck into the right side of the net off a pass from James van Riemsdyk, and went ahead 2-1 midway through the third on a power play goal by Joe Pavelski. Datsyuk tied it two minutes later.
A long, high shot by Fyodor Tyutin that could have been the game-winner was disallowed on the referee's ruling that the net was dislodged. A clamor of boos arose from Russian fans waving their red, white and blue flags. A call in Russia that favored the U.S.? Must have been karma.
"The goalie touched the net so that it moved," Ovechkin said of Quick. "The referee had to see it. He should have given him a two-minute penalty."
The relentless action continued in overtime as the Americans kept scrambling to blunt the superior skating skills of the Russians on the large, international-size rink.
Then it came down to the shootout, back and forth 16 times until Oshie's winner. Oshie, incidentally, hails from Warroad, Minn., a town on the Canadian border and a hockey hotbed that's been home to several Olympians, including Dave Christian from the 1980 squad.
"I think you are going to see T.J. Oshie become a household name," forward David Backes said of his St. Louis Blues teammate. "Kids will be out on the pond, probably in Minnesota right now, throwing a five-hole on the goalie three or four times in a row."
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