SOCHI, Russia — The entire concept of a bronze medal game is a largely unfamiliar one to North American professional athletes. There is no Less-Than-Super Bowl, no Final Next-Best Four and no losers’ bracket in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The challenge for the players on the U.S. men’s hockey team Saturday night, then, was to pick themselves back up after a crushing loss the night before and summon the will to compete in a game being played for the equivalent of a consolation prize.
Debate, if you want, whether the Americans’ failure Saturday night, in a thorough 5-0 loss to Finland at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, was the result of being merely outplayed — or being out-hustled, out-efforted and out-hearted. What is not debatable is the fact the United States, arguably the most impressive team in the tournament’s preliminary round, will be going home without medals for the seventh time in the past nine Winter Games.
“Terrible,” said U.S. defenseman John Carlson of the Washington Capitals, with the same blank look that was on the faces of all the American players. “I thought we came out hot and we came out strong, and it just got away from us.”
Added Paul Stastny, “It feels like we have played this tournament for nothing.”
Teemu Selanne, Finland’s 43-year-old captain and national treasure, scored a pair of goals in his Olympics farewell, and goalie Tuukka Rask stopped 27 U.S. shots — including a pair of penalty shots by Patrick Kane — in the shutout as the Finns earned medals for the fifth time in the past six Olympic tournaments. Selanne, who became the oldest medal winner in Olympic hockey history, has been on the team for all five.
“Unbelievable,” said Selanne, who has spent the past eight seasons with the Anaheim Ducks. “Twenty-six years ago, I played my first national team game, and it’s been a great journey so far. And this is a great ending.”
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Just 20 hours had passed from the moment the final seconds ticked off the Americans’ 1-0 loss to Canada in Friday night’s semifinal — a defeat that, according to U.S. center David Backes, would stick with them “for a while” — to the opening faceoff in the bronze medal game against the Finns, a deceptively talented and disciplined group with 14 NHL players on its 25-man roster.
“It was pretty demoralizing,” U.S. captain Zach Parise said of the loss to Canada. “But we had to turn around and realize there was actually a bronze medal on the line, which is still a pretty big deal. But those two efforts were just not acceptable at this point.”
After a scoreless first period that was more or less evenly played, the Finns scored a pair of goals within 11 seconds of each other early in the second period — on a backhander by Selanne and a blast by Jussi Jokinen past U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick — at which point the Americans’ play turned from focused and sharp to disjointed and sloppy.
“When they got the two goals, a lot of frustration set in for us,” Parise said. “We started to try to beat guys one-on-one and stopped playing as a team. . . . [The Finns] played like they had something to win, and we just kind of shut it down.”
By the time the United States had taken three straight penalties in a seven-minute stretch of the third period and the Finns had scored on all three, the U.S. mission went from trying to win the game to trying to salvage a shred of dignity.
The Americans’ fall from legitimate gold medal contenders to medal-less flameouts was swift and stunning. Entering the semifinal against Canada, they had outscored opponents by a 20-5 clip and looking for all the world like an ascendant force that might finally get the United States past its biggest rival in a meaningful international game.
What happened? You could say that first Carey Price happened and then Tuukka Rask happened — two opposing goalies who, on consecutive nights, proved to be unyielding over a combined six shutout periods. But it also true to say the Americans didn’t pressure those goalies the way a team of their talent and pedigree should be expected.
“Our last two games, we were just flat. We had nothing,” Parise said. “It’s kind of embarrassing, the last two games we played. Especially today. It wasn’t a good effort by us.”