SOCHI, Russia — This one wasn’t as wrenching as the last one was, when the gold was within reach in Vancouver and then it was gone with one swing of Sidney Crosby’s stick in overtime and the Americans had to stand and listen to the roof blow off in tribute to the victors. Even if the US men’s hockey team had beaten Canada in Friday night’s Olympic semifinals, all they would have earned was a guaranteed silver medal and a date with Sweden’s world champs.
That’s all the Canadians got with their 1-0 triumph inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome and it’s not going to be a Sunday stroll for them. The Swedes beat them in a shootout in last year’s world quarterfinals and whacked them by three goals in their group opener in 2002 in Salt Lake, a boot in the butt that probably propelled the Canucks to their first gold medal in half a century.
“You have to line up the moon and skies to win,” said coach Mike Babcock, whose maple-leafed mob will be gunning for its third title in four Games. “People don’t always believe that in Canada, but it’s the facts.”
And the Americans won’t be getting the bronze as part of their farewell goodie bag. The Finns, who pushed the Canadians to overtime here and kicked the Russians halfway to Yakutsk, have been sturdy and stubborn rivals for them over the years. You may remember that in their 1980 finale, the one the US needed for the gold medal in Lake Placid, Finland led, 2-1, after the second period. “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your graves,” coach Herb Brooks warned his young men before they rallied for a 4-2 triumph. “To your f***ing graves.”
If the Yanks lose to the Finns on Saturday they’ll have the distinction of being the best US team ever to go home from the Games empty-handed, which is not a distinction they want. “The team we’re playing against is in the same situation,” observed forward David Backes, “so we’ll have to regroup, put our gear on and play our butts off for our country one more time and hopefully bring back some hardware.”
Right up until the final buzzer, when the Canadians finished off their night’s game of keep-away in their own end with the US net vacant at the other, Backes and his mates thought they might crack Carey Price (31 saves), get into overtime and keep their remarkable run going. But they never had enough of the puck. Whenever they were in the Canadian end, it wasn’t long before they had to shift into reverse.
“They came at us with 20 guys tonight,” said US coach Dan Bylsma. “They came at us with speed. They came at us for 60 minutes and that was a fast game. That was as fast of a game as I’ve ever been a part of.”
Until Friday the Americans had been wheeling and dealing, scoring 20 goals in four games but Bylsma knew that wasn’t going to last against a team that only had conceded three. The score would be 2-1 for someone, he predicted. But a shutout? Canada hadn’t done that to the US at Olympus since 1936, when it sent the Port Arthur Bearcats to Hitler’s winter wonderland in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
“We didn’t show up to play,” said defenseman Ryan Suter, whose father Bob played on the 1980 team. “It’s kind of frustrating. We sat back, we were passive. You can’t play scared. I thought we sat on our heels and just didn’t take it to them at all.”
Not that the Americans got very far when they tried. Whenever they emerged from their end they had several red jerseys for a brawny escort. “I think we were the first team that could skate with them in this tournament,” mused forward Matt Duchene. “Even the Russians didn’t play them as hard as we did. We’ve got such a commitment to backchecking and being hard to play against.”
Not that the Americans’ northern neighbors ever have been easy for them. Their record against Canada in global tournaments now stands at 7-50-3, and 3-12-3 at the Games. Still, this was only the second time the Yanks ever had held the Canucks to one goal at Olympus and lost. When Jamie Benn redirected defenseman Jay Bouwmeester’s offering past a screened Jonathan Quick (36 saves) just 1:41 into the second period, the tally didn’t figure to stand up. But it did.
The Americans only got three power plays and none during the final 34 minutes. When the clock was ticking down they were challenged to find a time when they could pull Quick for an extra attacker. “We’ll be thinking about this for a while,” Backes said.
Overnight is the most that they can afford. The Finns, who’ve made the podium at five of the last seven Games, are tough customers when something shiny is at stake. If the Americans still are mourning what they didn’t get on Friday, they may not get anything at all.
“There’s huge disappointment for not being able to come up with a victory in this game,” acknowledged Bylsma. “That’s got to be behind us real quick. We still have much to play for and we’ll deal with that tomorrow.”John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.