By Mike Collett-White
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The United States edged out host nation Russia in a thrilling men's ice hockey game at the Winter Olympics on Saturday, but a last-minute switch of high-tech suits failed to propel American speed skaters to their first medal of the Sochi Games.
Ice hockey mania gripped the Sochi Games on another warm, sunny day on the Black Sea coast, as two of the sport's heavyweights met in a match redolent of rivalries past.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watched the game, and later visited compatriot and skicross racer Maria Komissarova, who underwent 6-1/2 hours of surgery after breaking her back in a training crash in the mountains.
The president spoke to the 23-year-old, who is conscious, after her operation, and telephoned her father to reassure him that she was getting the best care possible.
Komissarova suffered the injury during training at the PSX Olympic skicross venue at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. She was taken to Krasnaya Polyana Hospital Number 8, specially built for the Olympics, where doctors decided to operate.
"During one of her training runs, Maria injured her spine," team head of press Mikhail Verzhba said. "It is a serious injury."
At the futuristic Bolshoy Ice Dome back in Sochi, the hosts lost 3-2 after T.J. Oshie scored in the eighth round of the shootout to end an electrifying clash.
Evoking memories of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics 'Miracle on Ice', when a group of American college players upset the then Soviet Union's 'Big Red Machine', the game delivered on everything it had promised.
There was breathtaking pace, skill, intensity, great goaltending, some controversy and plenty of edge-of-your seat drama. Everything, in fact, except a win for the hosts.
Putin, whose legacy will rest in part on the February 7-23 Games going smoothly, was philosophical in defeat.
"Sport is sport," he said during a meeting with Afghan war veterans. "I think the team put in a very decent performance. We'll see. There are key games ahead. We wish them success."
But there was double joy for the host nation after Viktor Ahn led Russia to a one-two in the men's 1,000 meters short track speed skating, and "Russian Rocket" Alexander Tretiakov sealed Russia's first Olympic gold in skeleton.
The excitement on the eighth day of competition in Sochi typified the atmosphere that has taken hold, banishing memories of a buildup to the Games overshadowed by threats of Islamist militant attacks and concerns over Russia's human rights record.
U.S. President Barack Obama decided not to come to Sochi and, following criticism of Putin's stance on gay rights, sent a delegation including gay officials.
There have been accusations of widespread corruption and profligacy surrounding the Olympics, which some estimates say cost $51 billion, making them the most expensive ever held.
Putin has dismissed those charges, and some Russian officials put the price tag much lower.
Despite frustration at what Putin recently called the West's Cold War mentality towards Russia, he has appeared at ease as he embarked on rounds of "wine diplomacy" in Sochi that included sharing a glass, and a chat, with U.S. team officials.
"I want to thank the fans who create this unique atmosphere of friendship and cooperation," he said on Saturday.
SUITS OR SKATERS?
There were no such happy thoughts for the U.S. speed skating team, normally a powerhouse in the sport but yet to win a single medal in Sochi as the Games hit halfway.
Puzzled by their poor performance, the Americans decided to ditch their high-tech outfits and went back to skinsuits for Saturday's men's 1,500 meter race. But the switch, confirmed minutes before the contest began, had little noticeable effect.
Four U.S. athletes were in contention; Brian Hansen finished seventh, Shani Davis 11th, Joey Mantia 22nd and Jonathan Kuck 37th.
Davis, a double Olympic champion who came into the Games among the favorites to add to his medal haul, was devastated.
Asked about the mood in the team after the latest disappointment, he replied: "We have no medals, man, we have none. And the way things are looking we might not get any, and it's sad because we've had a lot of potential, a lot of talent, a lot of things going for us and looking good going forward.
"But it's terrible, terrible, man. Big, big disappointment."
Zbigniew Brodka of Poland won the race by just three thousandths of a second.
In the rough-and-tumble world of short track speed skating, China's Zhou Yang successfully defended her 1,500 meters title, while Ahn kissed the ice and paraded the Russian flag after his victory in one of the premier events in short track.
Competing under his original name Ahn Hyun-soo, he won three gold medals for South Korea at the 2006 Olympics in Turin before a bitter fall-out with officials in his country of birth.
Earlier this week, South Korean President Park Geun-hye ordered a government ministry to investigate how one of the country's top athletes had ended up competing for a rival.
"I was touched by the loud applause the Russian spectators gave me ... today's result proves that my decision was right," Ahn said. "That's why today is so meaningful.
Up in the mountains, Anna Fenninger maintained Austria's grip on the women's Alpine skiing super-G title, in a race where just finishing proved a big challenge for the early starters.
Snow conditions have been a major talking point throughout the Games, with clear skies and temperatures of around 14 degrees Celsius in the mountains making the surface soft and slushy.
In and around the impressive Olympic village in Sochi, people wandered around in T-shirts and swam in the sea, in a surreal atmosphere for a Winter Games.
Sweden provided the latest Olympic upset when they won gold in the women's cross-country 4x5km relay, while hot favorites Norway could only manage fifth. Charlotte Kalla produced an astonishing comeback leg to earn the win.
In Saturday's final event, held under floodlights, Poland's Kamil Stoch won the men's large hill ski jumpin, becoming only the third man to capture both individual hills titles at the same Games.
(Additional reporting by Reuters Winter Olympic team in Sochi and Rosa Khutor)
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