GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Down to the weary fumes of its merry ride, the PyeongChang Olympics on Sunday managed to squeeze in one last pile of goose bumps. They alighted in the frantic seconds of a sport that does frantic seconds better than any, and they kept regenerating themselves through the 140 are-you-kidding-me seconds during which it appeared the men’s hockey gold medal was about to go to a gloriously preposterous upstart.
Ultimately, it did not. It went to that motley entity known here as Olympic Athletes from Russia, whose flag and national anthem were banned from these Games as a method of hurling the Russian nation into the big-doping hoosegow. It went that way by 4-3, 9:40 into overtime, when Nikita Gusev of the Russian club SKA St. Petersburg passed sharply across a forlorn German defensive triangle so that 20-year-old Kirill Kaprizov, a Minnesota Wild draftee who plays for CSKA Moscow, could slap the puck screaming into the upper-right net. It doubled the OAR’s total of gold medals at these Games, barring any further positive doping tests.
It led to a congratulatory call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to OAR Coach Oleg Znarok on the bench. It led to the Olympic flag being raised where the Russia flag might have, and the Olympic anthem being played while Russia’s bouncy fans sang the Russian national anthem a cappella, a considerable throng crooning concurrently to the other music from behind the goal where the match ended, creating a murky cacophony. It somehow maintained the odd fact that no team named “Russia” has won the Olympic hockey gold medal in a sport the country masters, what with the win of the “Unified Team” in 1992 after the Soviet Union breakup constituting the most recent Russian glee.
It led to Russian players fielding questions about the International Olympic Committee’s decision to continue banning the Russian flag at the Closing Ceremonies of Sunday night, and answering as did Znarok: “Russia is in our hearts.” It led to a winning news conference that brimmed with a delicious glimpse into the relationship between Znarok and the Russian media, which does not seem to meet the standards necessary to qualify as pristine. And it led 40-year-old Pavel Datsyuk, who won two Stanley Cups as a Detroit Red Wing, to conclude, “I have accomplished my dream. Now I have no dream.”
Tucked inside the whole tangle of it, however, lay those 140 seconds. From the moment with 3:16 left in the third period, to the 56-second mark, Germany led 3-2, its defenseman Jonas Muller having faked Datsyuk onto the ice before driving a goal into the upper-right corner, Germany’s second goal in a 3:13 span.
“I think we thought, ‘We got ’em,’” German captain Marcel Goc said. “We got the gold.”
“You guys [Americans] should do a second movie, ‘Miracle On Ice,’ ” his teammate David Wolf remembers thinking.
Germany, which did not qualify for the 2014 Sochi Olympics and was one of three teams that had to endure qualifying for the 12-team field here, would win the gold medal. Germany, which opened here with a 5-2 loss to Finland and then a 1-0 loss to Sweden, would win the gold medal. Germany, with far less NHL experience and caliber than had the OAR or even the Canadian team the Germans had defeated in the semifinals, would win the gold medal.
Germany, whose greatest hockey moment was that bronze at the 1976 Olympics, would start talking about something much bigger than that ancient bronze.
The NHL had receded. Some funky outcasts had risen.
The seconds flew and the bodies flew and OAR’s Sergei Kalinin picked up a penalty for tripping and Znarok yanked his goalie and Germany couldn’t keep possession and the puck went down into the German end and into a disorderly scramble in front of the net until the puck squirted out of the bodies and out to the left and . . .
Gusev, fairly alone over there, reached out and slapped it in with 56 seconds left.
“Kind of sucked that we are three minutes down to win a gold medal, but give credit to Russia,” defenseman Moritz Muller said.
“Just right now it feels a little bit awkward, or not awkward, a little bit disappointed, because we were that close,” defenseman Bjorn Krupp said.
“You know, right now, we’re just a little frustrated, more frustrated than happy,” said Coach Marco Sturm, the 938-game veteran of six NHL teams, mostly the San Jose Sharks and Boston Bruins but including the Washington Capitals.
His yeoman team, full of players from German teams such as EHC Munchen and Grizzlys Wolfsburg and Adler Mannheim and Thomas Sabo Ice Tigers, with their bios brimming with North American organizations such as the Peoria Rivermen, the Tri-City Americans, the Calgary Hitmen, the Portland (Maine) Pirates, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Norfolk Admirals, had taken a hard break early on. The former Los Angeles King Vyacheslav Voinov scored the first goal from inside the blue line out front with half of one second left in the first period.
The Germans, big and sometimes comparatively lumbering, found their footing and their belonging. They scored midway through the second when Felix Schutz’s shot found its way under goaltender Vasili Kosechkin. A donnybrook was on. It wound at its curious 1-1 well into the third when, with 6:39 left, Gusev stationed himself at the bottom of the left faceoff circle, faked the puck around a bit and then blasted it off goaltender Danny Aus den Birken’s helmet and in.
The tiny clump of fans in German colors and the neutral people pulling for Germany had just begun processing the anticipated reality when, 10 seconds later, the puck came off the boards to Germany’s Frank Mauer, who flipped it out front to Dominik Kahun, who ripped it by Kosechkin on the latter’s left into the upper right. Next came the Jonas Muller goal, 193 seconds after that.
The 140 seconds came next. People stood up. The nerves of Berliners and many other Germans frayed. Goose bumps welled. Kosechkin skated off. Gusev scored. Overtime came in its four-on-four Olympic format. Germany’s Patrick Reimer got a high-sticking penalty. Germany’s remaining triangle looked especially barren.
All that remained would be Znarok, who got giddy applause from the Russian media upon entry to the news conference room, and whose introductory statement would be, through an interpreter, “I think that this gold medal at the Olympic Games is the answer to all of your questions, ladies and gentlemen of the press.” It would continue with calling it “the most important match of my life” and saying his apparent calm had been a “mask” to pacify his players and saying he “got lucky, I think,” when he pulled the goalie. Of the IOC decision, he said, “Yes, we understood this was going to be the case and we took it calmly. Russia is in our hearts.”
Then he answered a question by including, brusquely, “I’m pretty tired. Unfortunately you are no big help, ladies and gentlemen from the press.” Asked how those ladies and gentlemen of the press might be more helpful, he concluded with, “I never expect any help from you and I will never expect any help from you.” One more comment about team unity, and he left.
It was some glimpse, even as back inside the building, the Germans began the rest of their lives with the two thoughts primed to battle each other in their brains: how great this was vs. how painfully close they got.
“I think once a few hours and a couple days have passed, and we realize what we accomplished here for our country and hockey, it’s going to feel better and better,” Goc said.
“I think I need a little bit of time now and realize what we achieved in the tournament,” Krupp said.
“It’s amazing for all Germany, I think,” Moritz Muller said. “No one is talking about soccer anymore right now.”
All right, Olympics are intoxicating, but let’s not go too far.