Drama-filled game a giant letdown for Russians

Written By BY RICK MORRISSEY rmorrissey@suntimes.com | @MorrisseyCST Posted: 03/17/2014, 11:15am
Array USA forward Zach Parise collides with Russia forward Valeri Nichushkin in the third period of a men's ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

SOCHI, Russia — The Russian fans wanted it more.

No, please, don’t be insulted. You couldn’t possibly have wanted this as much as these people did, even as you pawed at a buzzing alarm clock early Saturday morning and wiped the sleep from your eyes.

The Russian fans who sat shoulder to shoulder inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome knew only agony and exhilaration. If there was such a thing as an emotional in-between, it was news to them. You could have tried telling them that this was no way to live, but it would have been like talking to a set of nesting eggs.

Every rush up the ice by their team was a drama. Every U.S. shot on their goalie was a stab in the heart. Every trip to the penalty box was a Russian tragedy.

This was the United States, this was Russian soil and this sure felt like a lot more than an Olympic hockey game. The Cold War ended a long time ago, and the Miracle on Ice game happened in 1980. And this wasn’t a referendum on Russia and its place in the world.

But there was a fury to this game that didn’t add up, considering it was a preliminary round matchup and that there are miles to go in this tournament.

Let’s just say it was a hellacious hockey game and leave the sociopolitical undertones to somebody else, OK? The Americans won 3-2 in an overtime shootout, with T.J. Oshie providing the heroics over and over again, including the game-winner.

“When the puck is on your stick, you just block everything else out,’’ he said. “It’s you and the goalie.’’

After a masterpiece of a game, a shootout is like dogs playing poker. Or so we traditionalists thought. There were eight rounds and 17 shots in this one. After three shootout rounds, international rules allow the same players to shoot again and again. That’s how this turned into a stare down between Oshie and Russia’s Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, who had sent the crowd into a frenzy with two goals in regulation.

Oshie was 4-for-6 on Russia’s Sergei Bobrovsky, finally beating him for the game-winner and making the goalie’s water bottle bounce on top of the net in the process. It looked like a plastic exclamation point.

“At some point you think, ‘Does he have any more moves left?’ ’’ teammate Zach Parise said.

We’ll go with “yes’’ and feel good about our chances.

What a crazy, crazy game. It looked as if Fedor Tyutin’s goal from just inside the blue line had given Russia a 3-2 lead with 4 minutes, 40 seconds left in regulation, but replays showed that the net had come loose from its moorings. In the old Soviet days, either shady refereeing would have turned that into a goal or some comrade would have been executed.

But everybody’s more civilized these days, not that you could tell it inside the arena.

“It was fun,’’ said American forward Joe Pavelski, who scored off an assist from the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane. “We knew this game was going to have a tremendous atmosphere, a game we would really enjoy playing in. That didn’t disappoint.’’

Kane had a breakaway in the overtime but couldn’t finish it. Hawks fans will wonder why he didn’t see the ice in the shootout. Simple. Oshie is the best in the NHL at it this season.

For Russia, this was the event of the Olympics so far. There didn’t seem to be anything at stake except everything. Russian flags were everywhere. President Vladimir Putin was here, adding his ponderous presence to the occasion. No pressure, lads.

It was what I would imagine a cage match to the death feels like. With horns blaring. Lots and lots of horns blaring. Every time American fans tried to chant U-S-A, U-S-A inside the arena, Russian fans drowned them out by chanting their own country’s name.

It didn’t sound like a whole lot of fun for the home team.

“They’re the host country, there’s a lot of pressure on them,’’ American goalie Jonathan Quick said.

“They’re a great team. They’re going to keep playing, and they’ll be there toward the end.’’

Penalties galore, a waved-off Russian goal and enough tension to power a small city — all of it was somehow stuffed into one hockey game.

It’s hard to see how this can get better.

Unless they play again.

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