Too much, too soon for U.S. in Sochi
SOCHI, Russia -- Team USA captain Zach Parise was using words such as "embarrassing" and "disappointing" in the mixed zone while on the television monitors dotting the interview area at Bolshoy Ice Dome, at the same time the euphoric Finns were accepting their bronze medals after rolling over an undisciplined and surprisingly fragile American team.
It made for a nice juxtaposition, if a sobering one, for a U.S. team that came into the second week of play at these Olympics as the team virtually everyone -- players, media, coaches -- agreed was playing better than any other team.
But within the space of 24 hours, the Americans were shut out 1-0 by archrival Canada in the semifinal and humbled by an injury-wracked Finnish team, 5-0.
"Disappointing," Parise said. "A little embarrassing, with what was on the line the last two days and for us to not play well really in either of the games. That's something that will frustrate all of us for quite a long time."
Like many of his teammates, Parise seemed at a loss to put his finger on just where things went so wrong.
"It's very disappointing the way the game shook out. With a medal on the line, you get blown out 5-0. That's unacceptable at this point, at this stage of the tournament," said Parise, who finished the tournament with just one goal. "We're going home empty-handed with some pretty high expectations and high hopes coming into here a couple weeks ago. To leave on this note is pretty ugly."
The stark reality of the situation is that Team USA peaked exactly one week earlier. On the first Saturday of the Olympic tournament, the U.S. beat Russia in a shootout that made T.J. Oshie a household name and had people bandying about the term "classic." Great game.
In the end, that 3-2 win that featured an eight-round shootout meant nothing, a Sochi footnote. Or, worse for the Americans, a taunting reminder of what they were capable of yet were so far from when the games really mattered.
In its final two games of this tournament, games played less than 24 hours apart, the U.S. could not find a way to convert all of the promise felt a week ago, all of the optimism felt as the U.S. headed to its second straight Olympic semifinal, into something tangible -- like an Olympic medal.
"It feels like you played this tournament for nothing," said U.S. and Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny. "You win that quarterfinal game; you get excited because you know you're going to play for a medal; and you come away with nothing. Not much to say, just disappointing, sour, I guess. A medal's a medal and it's going to be with you forever and we couldn't come up with one and that's the part that's most frustrating."
After being stifled and suffocated by Canada in a 1-0 loss, the score of which flattered the Americans, one wondered how they would respond to the crushing disappointment. And their bronze-medal showing at least started as a vigorous, compelling game of hockey before the Finns poured three goals past the U.S. in the third period.
For the first 40 minutes, this wasn't a matter of the U.S. going through the motions. There was Ryan Kesler blocking a shot with his chest in the first period in a mad scramble to prevent the Finns from opening the scoring. Jonathan Quick was once again terrific, stopping a handful of difficult chances while the Americans seemed to regain their offensive footing.
The Americans controlled the puck for long stretches of play. They generated traffic in front, were creative and forced Finnish netminder Tuukka Rask, who had missed the Finns' semifinal loss to Sweden because of illness, to be sharp. Midway through the first period, it seemed as though the U.S. had enjoyed as much puck possession time as it had in the entire semifinal loss to Canada.
But the Finns, one of the pleasant surprises of this tournament, continued to play impressive hockey in spite of injuries and scored twice in 11 seconds early in the second period, the first on a backhand by incomparable Teemu Selanne in his Olympic swan song, to create a meteor-sized crater from which the Americans could not emerge.
Want a snapshot of this tournament for an American team that came within a goal of winning a gold medal four years ago in Vancouver and that came out of the preliminary round in Sochi the consensus best team in the tournament? How about two?
In the first period, Patrick Kane was elected to take a penalty shot after Finnish defenseman Kimmo Timonen shot a broken stick at Kane's linemate Kesler. The two-time Stanley Cup champ, who scored the Cup-winning goal in 2010 and who has evolved into one of the most dangerous players in the game, saw the puck roll off the end of his stick as he tried to make a move. Then in the second, after the Finns had stunned the U.S. with their two quick goals, Kane burst into the clear and had his stick slashed in half by a Finnish defender. Another penalty shot was awarded. On this one, Kane shot, only to have the puck strike the post just below the crossbar, the puck bouncing right back to Kane as though to mock him.
Through six games, Kane failed to score a goal. He was also in the penalty box (or just about to come out) when the Finns began to turn the game into a rout with their third goal of the game early in the third. It was one of the most disappointing games of his career, Kane acknowledged.
"No excuses," the Chicago Blackhawks star said. "I wasn't good enough to help the team win a medal. Obviously, I was expected to do a lot more. When you come over here and put up zero goals and four assists in six games, it's not the numbers you want to see. Definitely disappointing."
That's something that will frustrate all of us for quite a long time.Zach Parise
This isn't to suggest Kane is the only reason the U.S. did not beat Canada or did not come home with a medal, but it illustrates the ethereal nature of success in tournaments like this.
Phil Kessel went into the bronze-medal game tied with Sweden's Erik Karlsson for the tournament scoring lead with eight points. But he was ineffective in the semifinal game and in Saturday's collapse against Finland.
Dustin Brown was a force for the Los Angeles Kings when they won a Stanley Cup in 2012 and won a silver with the U.S. four years ago. But, apart from a sterling effort against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, this was a difficult tournament for the Kings' captain, who happened to be on the ice for the first two Finland goals. He played 26 seconds in the second period and just 1:17 in the third.
"I'm not happy about it," Brown said. "It's the coach's job to figure out the best chance to win. If that's what he thinks is I'm a player, he's a coach, that's how it works."
Brown was among a core of players whose experience in Vancouver was supposed to help this team avoid this kind of disappointment.
"It's definitely not a pretty sight. The score's obviously not pretty at all," Brown said. "It's hard to explain. I don't really have an answer for you, quite honestly."
Brown was asked whether the U.S. quit.
"I don't think we quit," Brown insisted.
If the Americans didn't quit, they sure did unravel, as the Finns pumped three goals past Quick in the third period, two on the power play as the frustrated Americans paraded through the penalty box.
"Yeah, we did collapse," offered U.S and Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter. "We had a great first period, we were all over them, had a couple of good chances, couldn't get one by him and it ended up costing us."
We had the opportunity to watch the U.S. Olympic selection process unfold. It was meticulous. And, in spite of the fact that the Americans managed to generate exactly zero goals in the two games in which they desperately needed them, it's hard to see this outcome as necessarily a flaw in the selection process. The team was built to do exactly what it did for much of the early part of the tournament. It was built to do what it did for the first 30 or so minutes of this bronze-medal game. It was built to win a gold.
But so are all six or seven legitimate medal contenders. In theory, this team was likewise built to win a bronze on this night. But so, too, was Team Finland.
Interestingly, in the postgame media conference, Finnish coach Erkka Westerlund, perhaps feeling for his counterpart Dan Bylsma, who was being grilled because of the team's poor performance, interjected unprompted to say he felt that the U.S. was in fact the best team in the tournament.
Would the presence of Bobby Ryan or Jack Johnson or any of the other talented Americans who weren't selected have changed the outcome here? Anyone who suggests they know the answer to that question is a fool.
Sweden coach Par Marts said something that resonated as he was discussing his team's upcoming gold-medal game against Canada on Sunday.
"Everything is about winning," Marts said. "You can say there [are] two winners in this tournament: the guys who win the bronze and the gold medal; used to be that way, so hopefully we can win tomorrow."
It would be unfair to suggest the Americans didn't appreciate what kind of opportunity was in front of them Saturday. It is fair to say they could find no way to seize that moment and the Finns could.
Here's something else that resonated: We were talking to former U.S. Olympian and Stanley Cup champ Bret Hedican, who was in Sochi providing analysis for American radio, about his experience with the U.S. national team in 1992.
"When I see a game like this, it takes me back to 1992, my experience in the bronze-medal game against the Czechs," said Hedican, who won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. "We lost against the [Unified Team] the night before, kind of the same scenario that the U.S. is in less than 24 hours later, you're out there to try and win the bronze.
"Reflecting now, it's the one thing in my career I look back and say, 'Boy, I really wish I had that." And I wish I had a bronze medal that I could reflect and, when I'm sitting at home and I've got my grandson someday or my granddaughter on my lap, I can say, hey, I was a bronze medalist in the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, or wherever."
Four years ago, the Americans understood the paradoxical weight of an Olympic silver after losing the gold medal on Sidney Crosby's golden goal. On Saturday, they felt only the more uncomfortable weight of unfulfilled expectations.