By Rachel Blount Star Tribune
SOCHI, Russia — It was meant as a compliment. After his team thoroughly outplayed the United States to win the Olympic bronze medal in men’s hockey, Finland coach Erkka Westerlund said the Americans were “maybe the best team in the tournament.”
It’s doubtful those words eased any of the sting of Saturday’s 5-0 loss. Westerlund’s assessment might even have made the U.S. feel worse, reminding it of the golden hopes it brought to Sochi. A carefully-constructed team, assembled by a legion of NHL scouts and executives through hundreds of hours of study and dozens of meetings, crumpled like a cheap tent at the hands of the Finns — one night after Wild defenseman Ryan Suter said they “didn’t show up to play” in the semifinal against Canada.
U.S. General Manager David Poile and his staff had talked up the chances of their team for weeks. They spoke of the tough roster choices they had to make and raved about the talent and depth of the player pool now being produced by the American development system. As Westerlund pointed out, the Americans were not undone by a lack of skill. Instead, the team will come home empty-handed because of a shortage of heart, an embarrassing prospect for its leaders to accept.
Finland goalie Tuukka Rask handed the U.S. its second consecutive shutout, following Friday’s 1-0 loss to Canada in the semifinals. Teemu Selanne and Jussi Jokinen scored a pair of goals 11 seconds apart in the second period, and the Finns used a string of U.S. penalties to score three more in the third to earn their fifth men’s hockey medal in the past six Olympics.
“We need to lay it all on the line when that light gets even brighter,” said U.S. forward David Backes, who plays for the St. Louis Blues. “Unfortunately, we’ve kind of taken a step back when that light got brighter.
“If we’re honest about this, these last two games, we’ve had better performances in the tank. And it didn’t come to the forefront. That’s the disappointing thing. If we played our butts off and were ousted, or if better teams beat us, I think you can live with that. But when it’s less than stellar performances, especially in a tournament like this, it’s going to be a sour, sour feeling.”
U.S. captain Zach Parise was just as blunt. “We didn’t show up to play a tough team in Canada,” said Parise, the Minnesota Wild star who finished the tournament with one goal and no assists in six games. “Our last two games, we were just flat. We had nothing. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
U.S. coach Dan Bylsma blamed Saturday’s debacle on the loss to Canada. The Americans, coveting a rematch against the team that beat them for the gold medal at the Vancouver Games, invested an overload of emotion into the semifinals.
Bylsma said the defeat left his players gutted. He rejected a suggestion that they were not driven to win the bronze, but he said the heartache of the Canada loss stuck with them, and they were “not up to the task.”
The U.S. started the game with some energy, but it could not get past Rask, even on two penalty shots awarded to Patrick Kane. When the Finns scored two quick goals early in the second period, the Americans deflated. Backes said they abandoned their game plan, while Finland ratcheted up the pressure.
U.S. forward Ryan Kesler thought his team’s energy ran low, an explanation that Backes did not accept. He expected the Americans to show some resolve after falling behind by two goals, given that the game was not even half over. But he said the deficit seemed to take the fight out of them.
While the Americans tried to explain what went wrong, the television monitors behind them showed the Finns receiving their medals. Wild forward Mikael Granlund beamed with a bronze around his neck, which he helped secure with two assists Saturday.
He finished a superb tournament as the third-leading scorer with three goals and four assists. “I think we wanted this medal more,” Granlund said. “It’s always a great feeling to end like this.”
The Americans didn’t get the ending they wanted, for the second consecutive Olympics. Their emotions were too raw to look very far into the future, but they know the sense of disappointment and lost opportunity is likely to stick with them for a while.
“We need to go out there and produce for our country,” Backes said. “We wanted to come here and get gold. And now we’re leaving with our bags empty.”