SOCHI, Russia COLUMN | — They launched themselves into each other at warp speeds. They traded bottle rockets in front of the crease, four leads (momentarily), dozens of sprawling, desperate saves and 16 shootout attempts, when the NHL’s most prolific goal scorer was suddenly transformed into Alex NOvechkin, his national coach never giving him the opportunity after overtime.
Did we mention the goal taken away from the home team — by an official from the other team’s country?
When 2 hours 47 minutes of some of the most exhilarating minutes of the Olympic hockey tournament’s 94-year history had been played, when the bedlam at the Bolshoy Dome was done, just one feat was left:
An overly proud fan hacked the Wikipedia page of a young, handsome Team USA forward named T.J. Oshie. After the 27-year-old’s basic bio info, “He was drafted by St. Louis in the first round, 24th overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft,” the next paragraph simply (and temporarily) read, “He is an American hero.”
Oshie 1, Ovi 0.
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You know who really was victorious after the United States and Russia played this heirloom in just their second game of the qualifying portion of the tournament before the medal round?
International hockey won.
The larger rink opened up so many more angles and creases, reducing the scrums in back of the net and in the corners, those moments that rob so many NHL games of the skill and speed of the best puck-mobility players on the ice.
The fervent pride and purpose both teams showed and played with early Saturday evening on the shores of the Black Sea should convince NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and his owners: It won’t financially ruin your product if you give your players two weeks off every four years.
If the NHL refuses to grant its stars another Olympic break in 2018, which is creeping closer to reality, the amount of long-term resentment the greatest players in the world will harbor will not be worth the money made in that time span.
This taut, deftly played game would not have happened in any NHL arena in February. It’s hard to imagine it happening in June, though Jonathan Quick, the brilliant U.S. goalie who has won a Stanley Cup, would argue that point.
The fact is, rather than view this tournament as money, time and interest lost from the middle of an NHL season, the league needs to rethink its position.
Seeing Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk work their magic and their games on the power play, seeing the fearlessness of Ryan Kesler and Ryan McDonagh — both of whom absorbed painful Ovechkin cannon shots from the left side during Russia’s extra-man chances — was marketing of the highest order for the NHL.
Like future NBA players who were forced to remain in college because of the age rule, a broader audience — an Olympic audience — witnessed the product at its absolute pinnacle.
(All right, the pinnacle for a non-medal round game. I say this because I was just waiting for some young reporter to ask Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber, who actually covered the “Miracle on Ice,” whether that was the best Olympic hockey game he’s ever witnessed. Beyond 1980, Farber actually thought Sweden’s gold medal-winning game in 1994 and the Czech Republic’s win in the 1998 semifinals were more thrilling than Team USA’s win on this night. Next time, I’m not going to ask Farber; he knows too much.)
Really, before Saturday, who knew much about Oshie’s history apart from the puck cognoscenti in Seattle and Minnesota, where he was born and grew up, and St. Louis, where he has 14 goals for the Blues this season?
With Olympic rules giving teams the opportunity to reuse their shooters after the first three rounds of the shootout, Team USA-Pittsburgh Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma went back to Oshie for the fourth round — and the fifth, sixth, seventh and eight rounds.
With Zach Parise and Patrick Kane available, Oshie scored four times in six tries — including the clincher that siphoned the sound out of the flag-waving Bolshoy Dome, save the American fans who were outnumbered about 10 to 1 but still boisterously chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
“Of course it’s disappointing when the same person scores four goals on you,” said Sergei Bobrovsky, the goalie for Russia and the Columbus Blue Jackets. “But what can you do? Today he won. Tomorrow will be a new day.”
Joe Pavelski, who scored in regulation for the United States, said of Oshie: “He’s got enough moves. I guess he doesn’t need nerves.”
U.S. forward David Backes, Oshie’s roommate with the Blues, was asked if Oshie were a dog what breed would he be.
“Don’t be deceived; he’s a Jack Russell terrier,” Backes replied.
Told even a toy pit bull would be nervous in an international shootout of this magnitude, Backes nodded, adding: “He’s a well-potty-trained Jack Russell terrier.”
Oshie became something much bigger than a St. Louis Blues star Saturday night; in a few glorious moments, he’s already entering national athletic hero-heartthrob territory.
From Sochi, With Oshie.
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We could get into the Russian goal that wasn’t because an American official decided the goal was off its moorings or the curt and hilarious translation of the news conference afterward. (“Should [Alexander] Radulov be scratched from next game?” Russian Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov was asked about the player whose penalties led to both of Team USA’s power-play goals. “Scratched? Yes — among other things.”)
But all those subplots would undermine one of the most complete, end-to-end suspenseful international games of the past, oh, 34 years.
“Play the same game [next time], and we’ll win,” Malkin said afterward, and there probably are even a few American players who believe that.
The most important, if non-controversial, angle was the penalty-killing of the U.S. team. The discipline to stay in their zones near the crease, the economy of movement — the physical courage to jump in front of two of Ovechkin’s 100-mph-plus slap shots — was sublime choreography of teamwork at its finest.
Like a flawless three-man weave in basketball or a swarming defensive unit that refuses to let a 2,000-yard running back turn the corner on them, Team USA stifled some of the most potent scorers in the history of the game by not giving them angles or trajectories toward the goal so they could cleanly shoot.
It wasn’t until Datsyuk, who turned back the clock with two goals, broke through in the third period on the power play that the Americans had given up a score in the extra-man situation in five tries.
That was followed by the late goal that didn’t count, the shootout and, finally, Oshie putting it home after 147 minutes of pure drama.
“It was a great game all round,” Bylsma said. “This game had pretty much everything in it in an unbelievable setting and atmosphere. It was definitely a memorable one.”
Bilyaletdinov added: “I believe the spectators also loved it. A very dynamic game where both teams performed at their top level.”
So riveting, intense and nerve-wracking, such a grand spectacle — what do you say we do it again in a week when the price of gold is at stake?
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
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