I am a hockey fan.
I am an American.
I was expecting better.
The last 48 hours saw the US women and then the US men go down to defeat 3 straight times.
There was great disappointment, along with a measure of embarrassment for the men – in the bronze medal game.
The US women had beaten the Canadian women 4 straight times in exhibition play and also won four of the last 5 IIHF World Championships. But the Canadians owned the last 3 gold medals, while the US was settling for 2 silvers and a bronze – after a shocking loss to Sweden in 2006. The Canadians also edged the US in pool play, 3-2.
The US team played a formidable game with the gold medal on the line, and held a 2-0 lead early in the third period. Even though the Canadians have substantial firepower, the US was blunting the attack of their northern neighbors, keeping pucks deep in the Canadian zone and covering tightly.
With about 7 minutes left, Canada started mounting a more consistent attack, and the US seemed content to stay back and defend. With 3:26 left, Canada scored what some might say was a fluky goal, bouncing in off the shoulder of defender Kacey Bellamy, who was standing to goalie Jessie Vetter’s left.
But was it entirely a fluke? Vetter made no move to her left as the shot came. Yes, it may have seemed like the shot was going wide – but Vetter still would have eventually needed to track the puck toward the left defensive boards. Had she done so in a more timely and aggressive fashion, she would have been in position to at least have a chance to stop the slow deflection from going in.
It’s fair to question whether Vetter and her teammates were thinking about the magnitude of what they were on the verge of achieving – and were at least slightly distracted from the task at hand.
After failing to capitalize on a lucky tangle between an official and a Canadian defender at the blue line – a 120-foot attempt on an empty net by Kelli Stack hit the post – the stage was set for an even more critical lapse by the US women, which cost them dearly.
First, Vetter, in a play she must have taken care of properly 1000 times in practice and against lesser competition, instead of smothering or sending a centering pass from her left right back where it came, hesitated just long enough to deflect the pass straight in front of her into the slot, and right onto the stick of Marie-Philip Poulin, who deposited the puck into the net for the tying goal with only 54.6 seconds left.
Is Vetter the only one to blame? Hardly. It may not be easy to defend a 6 skaters on 5 situation, but the key to defending it is when choosing whom to leave open, structure your team defense to let it be the furthest person from the puck (and hopefully the goal as well) at the moment. Instead, the US left the best women’s player in the world wide open right in front of their net, about 20 feet from the puck carrier.
In overtime, after storming the net early but failing to score, the US found themselves mostly on their heels. A chance materialized with a US power play 6:09 into overtime, but Jocelyne Lamoreux took a slashing penalty on a frozen puck that seemed to smack of an even-’em-up call.
In the eighth minute of overtime, with the teams skating 3-on-3, Hillary Knight’s pass to Lee Stecklein at the point was hopelessly off target and Knight – who many regard as the best player on the US team – was desperately trying to catch Hayley Wickenheiser to defend the breakaway that her turnover created. Poulin scored on the ensuing 4-on-3 power play to steal the gold.
To her credit, US captain Meghan Duggan, while admitting disappointment, spoke about how it was an honor to be part of such an intense and memorable game. Kelli Stack philosophized that after hitting the post on an empty net, it just wasn’t meant to be.
But the raw, emotional truth came from Nicole Bozek, who said “we train our whole lives to win a gold medal here. It’s the world stage…we’ve been put in situations, not the Olympics like this, [but] the past four years, this is what we trained for. We didn’t train for a silver. We trained for a gold medal.”
The US men had a chance to avenge the women’s loss and put themselves in the gold medal game for the second consecutive Olympics. The US men had not won gold since 1980′s Miracle on Ice, 18 years before the NHL took over the Olympic rosters.
Their opponent: Canada. Just as in the 2010 final.
Things looked good for the US – they were the top scoring team in the tournament thus far, while Canada struggled with chemistry issues, needing a late power play goal to escape with a 2-1 win over Latvia (Latvia?!?) in the quarterfinal.
But the Canadians stuck to their defense-first formula. Never before did a 1-0 lead seem so insurmountable, as the US forwards were barely able to get a sniff of a scoring chance after storming Carey Price early in the game and coming up empty. Even more disappointing, US captain Zach Parise – who scored the tying goal which sent the 2010 gold medal game into overtime – had two great chances and didn’t finish them. One was a deflection on which announcers correctly pointed out that Parise didn’t angle his stick properly for an upward trajectory, instead smothering the shot’s momentum. The other was a point-blank opportunity that Parise must have heard footsteps on, and instead of picking a corner, he panicked and hit Price right in the Maple Leaf on the goalie’s chest.
The one coverage mistake by winger David Backes – who left Jay Bouwmeester open at the point for an opportunity to set up Jamie Benn for the game’s lone goal – also loomed large.
Disappointing, to be sure.
But the scene shifted – as Parise would admit on camera as he stepped off the ice at the end of the bronze medal game – from disappointment to embarrassment, as the US mailed it in during a 5-0 loss to Finland, apparently choosing to brood over what might have been instead of showing the fortitude to want to come home with a meaningful souvenir of their time in Sochi.
As a result, they relegated T.J. Oshie’s shootout heroics against Russia to a 4th and 26-like footnote.
The Finns are happy to walk away with bronze. They’ve done it 4 times since 1994, and 3 times since NHL players began playing.
Is it coincidence? I think not.
The Finns could have been brooding over having to deal with losing goalie Tuukka Rask hours before their 2-1 loss to Sweden in their semifinal – a game in which replacement Kari Lehtonen was barely adequate and in which the Finns squandered a 1-0 lead. They also were without Valtteri Filppula and Mikko Koivu, each of whom suffered an ankle injury just before the Olympics.
Instead, the Leijonat (Lions) of Suomi demonstrated “sisu” – translated as a certain kind of grit and perseverance in the face of adversity.
It’s food for thought when Americans might think it understandable for their emissaries on ice to lack motivation to win bronze after losing out on gold.
Young people may not believe this, but I’m old enough to remember the “consolation game” played for third place he NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Penn Quakers lost to future Celtic Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell’s UNC-Charlotte team in the 1979 game (while everyone else awaited the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson showdown that very well may have resuscitated both NCAA and NBA basketball).
There were also – amazingly – similar games in the NFL playoffs before the AFL merger.
It’s unthinkable now that we should have asked the 49ers and Patriots to square off in the less-than-super Bowl in the off week leading to the game everyone cared about.
In our culture, if you can’t win it all, why keep playing?
It’s a fair question – but the bigger question might be why recruit players who won’t go all out even in a bronze medal game?
For crying out loud, the captain of the Stanley Cup champions from 2 seasons ago gave up on a play and coasted instead of backchecking on the Finns’ second goal, which came 11 seconds after their first and was clearly a backbreaker.
Head coach Dan Bylsma nailed Dustin Brown’s rear end to the bench the rest of the game. It gave the team a momentary lift, but after Patrick Kane missed the second of two penalty shots he took – this time hitting the post after shooting wide on the first one – the team sagged even further.
By the time it turned 3-0, the rest of the game became a frustration-induced penalty-fest. There was no refuge on the bench, none on the ice – so why not get some peace and quiet in the penalty box?
In the end, the US men went from being the top scoring team in the Olympics to one that was shut out for 120 straight minutes when it counted most.
I could analyze it as them having less time and space to operate and being broken down by superior competition to expose their flaws.
Or I could muse as to whether NHL players should play in the Olympics – especially in-season. Watching the Islanders’ John Taveras get knocked out for the rest of the season and watching his GM Garth Snow go on a tirade about lost ticket sales, no shot at the playoffs (and failing to state the obvious – that after making a disastrous trade for Thomas Vanek, the first round pick Buffalo acquired will likely be in the top 5 with Taveras now out), it gives one pause. Even more so when watching the US defense pound on Sidney Crosby – everyone except for his Penguins teammate Brooks Orpik, who noticeably pulled up. This could very well be the NHL’s swan song at the Olympics.
Either way, I’m left wondering…where can I order up some sisu?