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SOCHI, Russia — For four years, the U.S. men's hockey team had waited for another crack at the Canadians, another shot at gold, another chance to break through and show it can be the best in the world and, with all due respect, get people to stop talking about Miracles and Lake Placid and all of that.
Four long years and…
"We didn't show up to play," defenseman Ryan Suter said.
The U.S. lost 1-0 to Canada on Friday, but the game wasn't as close as the score. If not for the brilliance of goaltender Jonathan Quick, who was beat only by Jamie Benn on a brilliantly redirected pass in the second period, the scoreboard would've been more representative.
Canada absolutely snuffed out the Americans, forced them to the perimeter, limited their opportunities, silenced their snipers and seemingly stripped them of their personality. It was dispiriting to watch. For the final 50 minutes, it was clear which team was superior, even if the goals didn't come for Canada, which has struggled to score throughout these Olympics.
This was a show of force by the Canadians, who move on to play Sweden for the gold medal on Sunday. And it was a bitter, bitter repetitive pill for the U.S., which came to Sochi to win and now must scrap for bronze against Finland on Saturday after it wound up, in many facets of the game, noncompetitive.
"Obviously, a sick feeling," David Backes said.
"Yeah, it's tough right now," Patrick Kane said.
"Disappointing, that's all I can say," Brooks Orpik said.
Despite what Suter said, this may not have been so much a matter of lacking will or commitment or effort. The pain here was real. This was the frustration of believing that this was going to be the day, only to deal with the complete realization that there is still so far to go.
It was just that the Americans were never able to counter with the kind of aggression that was needed to overcome a still noticeable talent gap.
"We sat back. We were passive," Suter said. "You can't play scared. I thought we sat on our heels and just didn't take it to them at all."
[Related: Canada ends USA's run for hockey gold]
"We didn't do enough to get traffic in front and find second and third chances," Backes added. "We [have been] scoring pucks all around the net all tournament. We didn't tonight. The result is [goaltender Carey Price] sees a lot of pucks, catches them, kills plays, gets faceoffs, and we don't get that sustained zone time to get goals."
"[We get] a goose egg tonight," he said, almost trying to come to grips with the concept.
There is no easy answer here. The Americans' pursuit of a first gold medal since the legendary 1980 Olympic championship game continues another four years, and no one is even certain that NHL stars will be allowed to compete in the future. This could be their last chance.
USA Hockey had smartly built up its program with a focus on team play. It won silver in Vancouver, and this group was faster, younger and perhaps more creative offensively. At least it was against the rest of the teams in this field. Once Canada was across the way, the long, open-ice passing was mostly gone and the push-the-tempo attack was doused by speedy forechecking and fundamentally sound defenders.
Throughout the tournament, the Americans prided themselves on being a mix of skill and scruff, and they liked using terms such as "abrasive" and "nose to nose." Against the Canadians, they had so few moments when they could keep up and get in anyone's face, force the pressure and make something — anything — happen.
"They just had the puck a little more, especially when I was on the ice," forward Joe Pavelski said. "We didn't win many faceoffs [minus-10]. It's tough that way. We just didn't sustain well enough. We didn't have too many good looks …"
He could go on. And on.
The lack of a truly great American skill player remained evident. Kane, the most obvious candidate, finished without a goal in these Games. There wasn't a guy capable of creating opportunities against Canada. And while it's true nothing comes easy, especially against a loaded opponent, sometimes that's just simply what's needed to prevail.
"I don't think anyone got in on their defense tonight," Kane said.
Frustrations and shock were everywhere. This wasn't how anyone envisioned it, just getting swallowed up and outclassed and sent packing in such a quick, efficient manner.
"Everyone expected a tough checking game but a 1-0 shutout?" Kane said. "I don't think anybody expected that."
The Americans aren't underdogs anymore and haven't been for years. The players here have all the respect in the world for the "Miracle on Ice," but the prevailing sense that they are still just some gritty hopeful trying to steal a medal against a vastly superior competition wears on them all. They are good enough.
"Thirty-four years ago, it was a miracle," coach Dan Bylsma said. "But circumstances and our team and our program is much different now. ... I guess the reference are a little old. [It's] not applicable."
It's going to continue, though, until the Americans seize gold. Four years ago, they lost in overtime to Canada, in Canada, in one of the greatest, most intense and hard-fought games ever played. It was brutally painful, but it came with no regrets.
Here? Now? It all feels like back to square one, another Olympics of treading water against the Canadians. Always, it seems, the Canadians.
"This one [hurts more]," Suter said. "We didn't show up to play. ... We had motivation. We just didn't take it on the ice.
"It's just very frustrating."
And that's going to linger for all of them, linger for four more years at the very, very least.
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