SOCHI, Russia — If 1980 was the “Miracle on Ice,” this was the “Debacle on Ice.” If 1980 was about American kids winning with guts against overwhelming odds, this was about American pros wilting when the going got tough. Some 34th anniversary this was. This was the opposite of the Olympic ideal.
“Disappointing,” said captain Zach Parise. “A little embarrassing.”
Not a little. A lot.
There was no shame in losing to Canada in the semifinals Friday night, 1-0. Canada was the better team. There could have been no shame in losing to Finland in the bronze medal game Saturday night. A letdown could have been understandable.
But there was shame in this 5-0 loss because it wasn’t just a letdown. It was a meltdown. The Americans didn’t show the character that is supposed to define USA Hockey. They unraveled after things didn't go their way, freelancing, turning over pucks, taking penalties, letting the Finns pour it on.
They came for gold. They left as goats.
“It feels like you played this tournament for nothing,” said center Paul Stastny. “You win that quarterfinal game. You get excited because you know you’re going to play for a medal, and you come away with nothing. Not much to say. Just disappointing. Sour, I guess. A medal’s a medal, and it’s going to be with you forever, and we couldn’t come up with one.”
“Obviously,” said center Ryan Kesler, “that’s going to leave a hole in your gut for a while.”
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The Americans are tired of hearing about 1980. That was long ago. Those were amateurs against the Soviet stars. These are pros against pros, and the United States has won silver twice in the NHL-at-the-Olympics era – in 2002 and 2010, losing to Canada both times. A gold medal would not have been a miracle here.
This team wanted to start a new conversation and beat Canada along the way. The Americans raised hopes by winning their first four games, scoring 20 goals, more than any other team in the tournament. They drew the Canadians in the semis and couldn’t wait to play them, and they got shut out. It hurt. “It was the game I think we wanted and got in this tournament, got it in the semifinal, and losing that game, it took a lot out of us,” said coach Dan Bylsma.
That meant trouble. While the Finns played their semifinal at 4 p.m. Sochi time on Friday, the Americans played theirs at 9 p.m., giving them less time to recover for the 7 p.m. faceoff on Saturday. The Finns also have won more men’s hockey medals than any other country in the NHL era – bronze in 1998, silver in 2006 and bronze in 2010. They wanted this more.
Don’t make excuses for the Americans. Don’t spin this into a positive – that they have high standards, that only gold matters. Don’t compare this to what happened in 1998 at Nagano, when the Canadians lost in a shootout to the Czech Republic and then lost the bronze to Finland. At least that game was 3-2.
[Photo gallery: Finland blanks U.S. to claim bronze medal]
The Americans did come out hard Saturday night. They did show some heart. With goaltender Jonathan Quick down and out, Kesler leapt in front of the gaping net like a Secret Service agent protecting the president. He took the puck in the chest as if it were a bullet.
But then Patrick Kane failed to score on a penalty shot, and Max Pacioretty failed to score on a breakaway, and they gave up two goals in 11 seconds early in the second period. Bylsma called a timeout and tried to wake up the players. Dustin Brown made mistakes on both goals, and Bylsma benched him, even though he is an alternate captain. “I’m not happy about it,” Brown said. “It’s the coach’s job to figure out the best chance to win, if that’s what he thinks, I’m a player. He’s the coach. That’s how it works.”
And then Kane failed to score on another penalty shot later in the second. Kane hit the right post, and the puck ricocheted into the air. He caught the puck in his glove and tossed it to the side like garbage. “No excuses,” said Kane, who didn’t score in the tournament. “I wasn’t good enough to help the team win a medal.”
And then it got worse. They let it get to them, and they came unglued.
“Once they got those two goals, a lot of frustration set in on our part, whether it was some feelings from last night, disappointment of being where we were,” Parise said. “We started trying to beat guys 1-on-1. We turned the puck over all the time. We got penalties. We just kind of stopped playing that team game that got us to where we are.”
Kane slashed his stick at the feet of a Finn and took a poor tripping penalty; the Finns scored just as the penalty expired. T.J. Oshie went off for interference; the Finns scored on the power play. Ryan Suter hit an opponent and went off for high-sticking; the Finns scored on the power play again. Kane added a late slashing call; somehow the Finns didn’t make it 6-0.
[Also: Teemu Selanne caps Olympic career with one more medal]
“It’s all disappointing, but it’s very disappointing the way the game shook out,” Parise said. “With a medal on the line, you get blown out, 5-0. That’s unacceptable at this point, at this stage of the tournament.”
The coaches sat side by side in the post-game press conference, as the coaches do after every game at the Olympics. After Bylsma answered a question about effort, Finnish coach Erkka Westerlund interjected.
“I have to say USA has maybe the best team in this tournament,” Westerlund said. “They play very well together.”
Westerlund was trying to help, but he only made it worse, highlighting the failure. Best team in the tournament? The Americans had lots of potential and high expectations, but what do they have to show for it?
Wins over Slovakia, Russia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic? As thrilling as the Russia game was, the Americans needed an eight-round shootout to win, and how good were the Russians, really? The Americans couldn’t match the Canadians. They not only lost bronze to the Finns, they lost it.
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“There was absolutely no part of anyone, I believe, that didn’t want to go into this game and win a bronze medal – absolutely none,” Bylsma said. “Everybody to a man today talked about the importance of this game and going into this game to win a bronze medal. But I do know the emotional toll and the disappointment of coming to this tournament, and wanting the showdown with the Canadians in that game, there was disappointment in losing, and that’s not going to go away.”
Neither will this.
“I think if we’re honest about this, these last two games, we had better performances in the tank and they didn’t come to the forefront,” said center David Backes. “That’s, I think, the disappointing thing.
“If we played our butts off and were ousted or had better teams against us, I think you can live with that. But when it’s less-than-stellar performances, especially in a tournament like this where it’s one and done, when you’re playing for your country, there really should be nothing held back. It’s going to be a sour, sour feeling for a while.”