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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – An Olympics tournament as calm as a scented Yankee Candle got a droplet of kerosene on Saturday night when an old rivalry flared up both on the ice and in the stands.
Team USA got boat-raced by O.A.R. – let’s just call them Russia – but the one-note plot of the 4-0 game didn’t compare with the side stories that bubbled between whistles and after the final horn. Late in the third period, Russia trotted out its big guns for a meaningless power play, and that rankled U.S. head coach Tony Granato enough that there was no handshake with his Russian counterpart.
When asked after the game if that late lineup bothered him, the normally unruffled Granato had a stern, one-word answer: “Yes.”
Asked why, the coach shrugged and said, “It’s four-nothing.”
The Russians can’t be expected to let off the gas in this tournament. They’re still bent out of shape from Sochi, when the Americans embarrassed them in a shootout and the team bombed out of a home-ice Olympics it was supposed to win.
“They still play highlights of T.J. Oshie in the shootout in Sochi,” Ilya Kovalchuk of O.A.R. said after Saturday’s game. “Hopefully we can change that now.”
Then there’s the ignominy of having to show up here without “Russia” on their red and white jerseys because of an IOC doping ban. The rest of the Russian athletes are struggling in these Games, but president Vladimir Putin likely will be delighted with the entire fortnight if his boys win gold on ice. Only hours before the game, U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller announced indictments of 13 Russian nationals in the FBI’s ongoing investigation of interference in the 2016 presidential election. That surely made the trouncing sweeter for Putin, and maybe for some of the fans too. One woman in the arena concourse, decked out in Russia gear, told an American reporter, “This is a political game.”
It certainly had political overtones. In the moments before the opening puck drop, one fan vigorously waved a hammer-and-sickle flag from the old Soviet Union. Another fan wore a “CCCP” jersey from the Red Army days. And still another had a modern Russia flag with the label, “Olympic Fans of Russia.”
They sure do know how to troll over there.
The noise from the Russian section hardly waned as the night went on. Fans there chanted “Roos-see-ya!” throughout the game, pausing only to dance to American music during timeouts. The U.S. contingent across the way grew sullen as the talent disparity became evident. They were reduced to chanting in the concourse, “We Don’t Cheat! We Don’t Cheat!”
It was feisty on the ice, too. Former Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk set the tone early by throwing a heavy elbow that probably should have been a penalty. The Russians seemed to target Jordan Greenway early and often, shoving him along the boards in front of the benches.
“I don’t know what started it,” he said later. “He didn’t want to let me go. He wanted to do a little dance. I’m always down for a little dance.”
It became more of a dance at the end of the second period, when Nikolai Prokhorkin crosschecked Greenway and Chris Bourque flew in to defend his guy. It turned into a skirmish and Prokhorkin emerged with a smirk on his face. Bourque didn’t think it was funny.
“If guys want to step up to the plate,” he said after the game, “I’m ready.”
Bourque seemed just as ready for a rematch. “We weren’t scared of them,” he said. “We’re still not scared.”
The Russians aren’t scared either. They are the best team in the tournament. The silliness of this situation is that the combination of the half-punishment from the IOC for doping and the withholding of players by the NHL has transformed the Russians from outcasts to palace-dwellers. They look like they’ve been playing together for years, while other teams are still showing flashes of preseason rust. So they can capitalize not only on the extra talent, but also on the extra confidence that familiarity brings.
“That team capitalized on momentum better than any team I’ve played against,” said U.S. forward Brian O’Neill.
There was momentum everywhere for the Big Red Machine on Saturday. Maybe that’s why Granato acknowledged that last power play irked him. Perhaps it’s something to rally his younger guys.
Team USA needs something more than what it had on Saturday. Because the way this tournament is going, Russia medaling is a foregone conclusion.