GANGNEUNG, South Korea — It was a night for Cold War nostalgia and present-day geopolitical angst, a night for feisty, post-whistle scraps in the corners and for cheap jokes on Twitter — Boy, those last two minutes sure were an indictment of the Russian power play, am I right? It was a night drenched in history at the start and simmering with ill feeling at the end. It was a night for wild flag-waving and raucous chanting, for a little arena on an Asian peninsula to get its roof blown off by a hockey game, of all things.
It was even a night for competitive hockey, even if the scoreboard suggested a beatdown. The Americans were fast, physical and relentless. They outshot the Olympic Athletes from Russia. But they were a ramshackle band of college kids, minor leaguers and retirees. They were playing grizzled Kontinental Hockey League veterans and former NHL stars. The difference in skill — passing, stick-handling, finishing — was roughly the size of Siberia, and that is what the scoreboard showed.
The team of Russians outclassed the United States, 4-0, on Saturday at Gangneung Hockey Centre in the group stage of the Olympic hockey tournament. The final two Russian goals, the ones that turned an antagonistic scrap into a rout, came off the stick of Ilya Kovalchuk, a 34-year-old who once signed a $102 million NHL contract. The United States might have mega-prospect Jordan Greenway, but with the NHLers back in North America on Commissioner Gary Bettman’s decree, it doesn’t have anybody like Kovalchuk.
It does have a backbone. In the final seconds of the blowout, OAR Coach Oleg Znarok reinserted his first line, providing Kovalchuck a chance at a hat trick and poking the United States in the eye. Asked later whether he was upset at the tactic, U.S. Coach Tony Granato said, sternly, “Yes.” In the moment, Greenway ended up in another tussle, the last in a night-long series.
“We didn’t get the win, but we wanted to send a message that we’re not going to just back down because we’re down 4-0,” Greenway said. “We’re still here to do big things, and we’re not just going to fall over.”
No matter what is going on in the world, hockey games between Americans and Russians carry special meaning. Granato said Saturday night had the pace and the intensity of a Stanley Cup playoff game. There is the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” of course, but Russians have not forgotten the last Olympics, when the United States defeated Russia by winning an eight-round shootout in which T.J. Oshie scored on four of his six chances.
“No anger,” Kovalchuk said to a pack of American reporters. “It’s sports. It’s emotion. After the last game in Sochi, I think you guys are still showing Oshie scoring those shootouts. Hopefully, we’re going to change that now.”
The loss dropped the United States to 1-1-1 in pool play, which will force the Americans to win an elimination game simply to make the quarterfinals of a 12-team field. The path to a medal will be long, and it likely will go through OAR (2-1-0), which reasserted its position as the prohibitive favorite. After Saturday night, the United States would prefer it that way.
“I’d like to play this team again sometime,” Granato said. “I think they respect how hard we played against them. I think they realize they were in a good fight out there.”
Even a half-hour before the puck dropped, chants of “U-S-A!” competed with bellows of “Russ-i-a!” until all that emerged was one unintelligible growl. There were No. 8 Ovechkin sweaters, No. 21 Eruziones, No. 30 Craigs and even a few jerseys with the No. 80 and “Miracle” across the back shoulders. It seemed, at times, flag-wavers in the lower bowl outnumbered the flagless. Behind the U.S. goal, Russian fans wore shirts, one letter per person, spelling out “Russia In My Heart,” “Red Machine” and another phrase in Russian.
“It was intense right from the puck drop,” U.S. defenseman Jonathon Blum said. “Hopefully we meet them later down the road. You knew going in when they made the schedule, when you got picked for the team, that third game was going to be an important game.”
Whistles almost always resulted in squabbles, dust-ups and face washes. In the second period, the United States’ Chris Bourque and OAR’s Nikolai Prokhorkin shoved after a whistle, with Greenway in the middle of a connected scrum. At another point, Greenway and Prokhorkin tangled all the way up the boards, with the pair flopping together to the ice.
“I don’t know really what started it,” Greenway said. “He wouldn’t let me go. He wanted to do a little dance. I’m always down for a little dance.”
OAR seized the lead on a gorgeous goal. Alexander Barabanov possessed the puck behind the net and wheeled a pass to Sergei Mozyakin, who ripped a touch pass to Prokhorkin in front of the net. Prokhorkin one-timed it past goalie Ryan Zapolski. It was just the kind of sequence the United States, given appearances Saturday night, seems incapable of pulling off.
The Americans played back-and-forth hockey, not letting the Russians control the game, and they could have tied it when forward Ryan Donato blasted a wrister off the crossbar. The backbreaker came as the second period ended. With 0.2 seconds left, Kovalchuk sniped a deep wrist shot over Zapolski’s shoulder to make it 3-0. Just 28 seconds into the third period, Kovalchuk fired another wrister into the back of the cage.
“I don’t think we should hang out heads low about that effort,” Blum said. “They scored on their chances. We had a couple chances and hit a post. I don’t think we backed down at all. We didn’t play a bad game.”
“I thought we were right in that hockey game when they were going at their best,” forward Brian O’Neill said. “I don’t think it was out of our control. When we were going our best, we had some chances we could have buried. I thought it was pretty even.”
The problem is the United States has not shown it has the personnel to bury those chances. The Americans can hang with the mighty Russians physically, but the scoreboard is another matter. Still, despite the lopsided score and OAR’s last-second kick to the Americans’ shins, the United States’ confidence had not waned. The Americans believe they will see OAR again, and they believe it will be different.
“I don’t see any reason why we’re not in the gold medal game,” Greenway said.
Given the United States’ performance through three games in the tournament, the comment pleaded for clarification.
“In the gold medal game,” Greenway said. “That’s what I said.”
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