SOCHI, Russia — Patrick Kane stood there, his head sagging just a bit, trying to make sense of what had just happened — how his high-flying team had just been completely shut down, how his dream of winning a gold medal had just been dashed, again, by his nearest rivals and a few of his closest friends.
As he spoke in the moments following Canada’s tense 1-0 victory over the United States in the Olympic semifinals on Friday night, a triumphant Jonathan Toews walked by, no hint of glee or gloating on his face, and briefly put his hand on Kane’s shoulder.
Brothers always. But rivals on this day.
“He’s a great player, I respect him as a guy and as a hockey player,” Toews said. “But those are big games. Everyone’s playing for their country and for their team, and at the end of the day, for themselves and their families. So we wanted that one pretty bad.”
And they got it. Again.
Four years and 5,000 miles from Vancouver, the Canadians once again one-upped the Americans. In 2010, it was Sidney Crosby’s golden goal in overtime. On Friday, it was a 31-save shutout by Carey Price, a lone goal by Jamie Benn, and a brilliant shutdown performance by Toews, Patrick Marleau and Jeff Carter on the Americans’ red-hot line of James van Riemsdyk, Joe Pavelski and Phil Kessel.
Jonathan Quick was spectacular for the U.S., making 35 saves, many of them extraordinary. But one was all Canada needed.
In a game with a breathtaking pace featuring two of the fastest teams ever assembled, Canada won not because of the immense offensive talent on its roster, but because of the tenacious forechecking and backchecking of its superstar forwards, the steady work of its defensemen in clearing the slot, and the strong play from its supposedly only weakness in goal.
So after a week of teeth-gnashing in Canada over its team’s lack of offensive punch, Canada punched back, and earned a spot in Sunday’s gold-medal game against Sweden.
“A lot of you expect us to be there, and expect us to just show up in the final and have the chance to play for the gold medal,” Toews said. “But we knew it was going to be a lot of work, a lot of effort, a lot of adversity to get there. A lot of people want to talk about this and that and maybe things they think aren’t so strong about our team. We knew all along that we were doing a lot of great things and we were going to continue doing that. As you saw tonight, again we didn’t swore a lot of goals, but we didn’t have to [in order] to win. The next game we’ll follow that trend, we’ll follow that work ethic. We can check, we can work our tail off, and we can make things really tough for the other team. And we’ll find a way to win.”
It’s Canada’s game — as the Twitter hashtags giddily pointed out before, during and especially after the game. But after slogging through four games against European teams, Canada won by paying America’s game — fast, ferocious, and in-your-face.
The Americans, meanwhile, after a strong start, looked passive and disjointed — “terrible,” was how defenseman Ryan Suter put it — and nothing like the dynamic team that won its four previous games in impressive fashion.
“It probably worked to both teams’ style a little better,” Canada defenseman Duncan Keith said. “We feel we can play any game, and we’re in the final for a reason.”
Said Kane: “They played great. They had the puck a lot and kept it in our end. They probably did a little bit of what we wanted to do.”
The narrative pointed to this game as the one in which the Americans could stake their claim as true hockey superpowers, and complete the rise they started with their surprising run to the 2010 gold-medal game. But while they haven’t won gold since 1980, it was a phony story line to begin with. At the highest levels of hockey, the U.S. already is there, standing toe-to-toe and skating neck-and-neck with the Canadians and the Swedes and the Russians and the Finns.
Two one-goal losses in four years don’t erase the strides U.S. hockey has made. The strides U.S. hockey has made only makes two one-goal losses in four years that much more agonizing. That’s the clearest sign of progress — great expectations, and greater disappointment.
But now the Americans have to refocus for a bronze-medal game against Finland, less than 24 hours after their hearts were ripped out by their nearest — and biggest — rivals.
“We don’t have a choice,” defenseman Cam Fowler said. “It’s one more time to wear this red, white and blue for our country, and hopefully bring home some hardware and do it proud. It’s obviously a sick feeling that we didn’t get the job done tonight, but we’ve got one more chance to make this trip worth it.”
Or, as Kane more succinctly put it: “It’s better than nothing.”