JIM LITKE: U.S. hockey ends with quite a flop at Sochi
SOCHI, Russia — At least they didn’t break any furniture.
Then again, the U.S. hockey team’s charter flight home didn’t take off until today. Although their fourth-place finish Saturday night was better than the sixth they managed at the 1998 Nagano Olympics — when several players went all Rolling Stones and started pitching chairs and desks out of windows — there won’t be many souvenirs worth hanging onto from here, either.
The Americans’ embarrassing 5-0 loss to Finland in the bronze-medal game featured plenty of quit.
Patrick Kane wound up with three penalties and two missed penalty shots — a once-in-a-career stat line — but he wasn’t the only U.S. player who was in trouble and having trouble finding the net. The Finns enjoyed a 7-3 advantage in power plays, converting the last two, but by then it hardly mattered.
The Americans were never coming back. Not with the way Finnish goalkeeper Tuukka Rask was playing.
“They played hard and taught us a real good lesson for 60 minutes,” U.S. center David Backes said.
“Yeah, we did collapse,” defenseman Ryan Suter concurred. “We had a great first period, we were all over them, had a couple of good chances, couldn’t get one by him and it ended up costing us.”
“Once they got those two goals, a lot of frustration set in for us,” captain Zach Parise said. “We started trying to beat guys one-on-one. We stopped playing that team game that got us to where we are.”
How the Americans even reached the bronze medal game was a tough question. The Americans scored at least five goals against all of their first four opponents, except Russia. Then T.J. Oshie scored more goals in the shootout against those Russians than the U.S. team combined put up in its last two games.
Canada exposed them in a 1-0 semifinal, that wasn’t as close as the score. Then the Finns dominated them.
In part that’s because this was a team built not to lose. Its strong suit, maybe its only suit, was defense. And once it fell behind opponents like Canada and Finland, whose defenses were just as organized and whose goalies were just as tough-minded, the Americans had too little firepower and no idea how to come back.
They had only two real scoring options up front — speedy Phil Kessel and the usually shifty Kane — and both of them were pounded relentlessly by the Canadians. They were so worn out by the time Finland picked up the pace that they were no longer really options at all.
“We get all this rhetoric about how we’ve got a high-powered offense, then,” Backes said ruefully, “you don’t score a goal for two games.”
There was bound to be some lingering disappointment after the loss to Canada. But there was also something about the composition of this U.S. squad that made you expect a 180 from the way that Nagano group responded to adversity. That team was a bunch of aging pros who groused about the accommodations early, partied their way through the preliminary round, and were ready to get out of town about the time the furniture started crashing down in the athletes’ village.
This time around, USA Hockey relied heavily on role players, choosing two-way forwards like Backes and Parise instead of a pure scorer like Bobby Ryan, whose absence from the squad was only the most notable of several. They were by and large solid guys and good citizens who made coach Dan Bylsma’s guarantee after the Canada game — “We’re not coming home with nothing,” he said — sound very believable.
As it turned out, though, Bylsma had to walk all of that talk back.
A day later, he said the Americans had invested too much emotion in what he called the “showdown” against Canada. It was the return match to the gold medal final in Vancouver four years ago, what might have been the best hockey game ever, and when his team wound up on the short end again, Bylsma said he simply underestimated how much else — motivation, passion, professionalism — the Americans had left on the ice.
“That’s just not going to go away,” Bylsma said about how that loss hung over his squad. “It’s not going to go away with the opportunity we had today.”
Well, the Finns got over losing to their greatest rival, Sweden, over roughly the same span. And hockey guys rarely give anything short of an honest effort.
Owning up to that might have been the toughest stance the Americans took all night.
“I don’t know if we were tired, but it shouldn’t matter. There is something on the line,” Parise said finally, “and we just didn’t show up.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.