Saturday’s preliminary game between the United States and Russia was everything you could want from Olympic hockey: A nail-biting drama with fantastic saves and scoring chances, fearless shot blocking, a disallowed goal and a pace that made it easy to forget this wasn’t the medal round.
But after a 65-minute emotional roller coaster, the two teams were tied, leaving the contest to be decided by a shootout.
Ah, the shootout. Aside from arguments about who was the greatest hockey player of all time, there may be no more divisive an issue in the sport than whether games should be determined in a one-on-one battle between individual shooters and goalies.
On one hand, shootouts can be viewed as trivializing all that happened in the game up to that point. It’s a skills competition, something seen in all-star games but arguably not meant to determine the outcome of an actual game. (There’s a reason the NHL only adopted shootouts as a tiebreak in the regular season and the Stanley Cup playoffs still have 20-minute, sudden-death overtime sessions for as long as it takes someone to win.)
But on the other hand, shootouts offer edge-of-your-seat excitement that never wanes. It captured the attention of diehard hockey fans and those casually tuning in to a preliminary-round game equally on Saturday. It made St. Louis Blues forward T.J. Oshie an instant superstar in American Olympic hockey lore as he took six different tries in the shootout – in international competition after the first three tries any player can be used, even in constant repetition – and scored on four of them to secure a 3-2 win for the United States over Russia.
So does the fact that the win came in the eighth round of a shootout rather than in continued overtime play diminish the result? Such is the hockey fan’s dilemma.
Full disclosure: Shootouts are generally disliked by beat writers on deadline — this one included. There are players and coaches who don’t care for the shootout either, because they don’t believe the result is a fair reflection of the game as a whole. The NHL’s general managers are discussing changes to the overtime format in hopes of ending more games before they reach a shootout.
When the NHL adopted the tiebreak in the 2005-06 season, it was in effort to ramp up the intensity by eliminating ties and draw in more fans with the displays of individual skill. For as many who dislike it, there are those who see the shootout as fantastic theater. And if you watch a youth hockey practice and you’ll see any number of kids mimicking their idols’ shootout moves.
Wherever you fall in the debate, Saturday morning was a fantastic all-around contest. The tiebreak managed to pack even more tension into the game and the eight-round shootout seemed like a fitting end to the heart-stopping tilt between the United States and Russia.
But this was just a preliminary-round game — imagine if a shootout were to determine medal placement in Sochi over the next week.
Analysis: The pros and cons of the hockey shootout