This Time, Americans Just Better Than Russia

If they had paid their rubles to witness revenge, for what they absurdly believe was a hockey crime perpetrated 34 years ago by Team USA, then the Russian people now are struck by a new gloomy reality.

America, no longer a one-time wonder, has risen from the Miracle on Ice to become the better hockey nation in the 21st century.

In another stunning, spellbinding Winter Olympic spectacle that oozed of lingering Cold War implications, an American team loaded with prime NHL talent, ample big-game savvy and considerable gumption showed up on Sochi ice and simply beat the Russians. This, too, will be remembered as an all-time masterpiece, but not because of any shock effect. This was a thriller because of two enormously skilled teams and the back-and-forth rhythms of an epic game, including a curious third-period call that actually favored the Americans and wiped out a go-ahead Russia goal because the net apparatus was off its moorings.

Karma turnabout, perhaps, for the 1972 Olympic basketball officiating sham? In the NHL, the goal would have stood regardless of whether the apparatus was loose. But in the Olympics, the goal was waved off after U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick — was it me or did Quick, in the heat of action, nudge the net off its anchor? — alerted officials. Russia President Vladimir Putin, watching the controversy among angry fans inside the Bolshoi Ice Dome, surely is looking into the matter, with Siberia always an option for any anti-Vlad conspirators.

In the end, when new national hero T.J. Oshie capped eight rounds of shootouts and beat Sergei Bobrovsky for a 3-2 victory, the Americans did not fall to the ice and smother each other and yell and dance as they did in 1980. No, Oshie simply pointed in a salute to Quick, who had survived the Russian storm in overtime and during the shootout, and then gathered with his happy teammates for hugs and backslaps. Thirty-four years? The way the Americans played, looking as good as any team in the world, the 1980 miracle seems like eons ago.

“The U.S. team is a good team and a good test for us,” said Russia captain Pavel Datsyuk, who scored twice in regulation and once in the shootout. “We played good, but the result is not good.”

Evgeni Malkin, the Russian star, went so far to use the L-word. “It was a good game, very interesting,” he said, per the Associated Press. “Two, I think, best teams played, and showed OK hockey. But shootouts is lucky.”

Lucky? Nothing Oshie did was lucky. In the Olympics, a coach may employ the same shooter as often as he likes after the first three rounds. Team USA coach Dan Bylsma wisely fixated on Oshie, a shootout specialist for the St. Louis Blues by way of Warroad, Minn., and he produced four goals in six attempts to silence a crowd that had been blowing horns and trying to will a Russian team facing intense national pressure to win.

“I was just thinking of something else I could do, trying to keep him guessing,” said Oshie, who scored three of his shootout goals between Bobrovsky’s wickets, including the winner. “I had to go back to the same move a couple times, but I was glad it ended when it did. I was running out of moves there.”

Said U.S. captain Zach Parise, marveling at Oshie’s skill: “At some point, you think, `Does he have any more moves left?’ But he did a good job. That’s hard to do, to get in a goalie’s head and throw him off a little.”

And to think Oshie almost didn’t make the U.S. roster. “I think you’re going to see T.J. Oshie become a household name after that display he put on,” said David Backes, Oshie’s teammate in St. Louis. “The kids will be out on the pond probably in Minnesota right now, throwing a 5-hole on the goalie three or four times in a row.”

As for the goal by Fedor Tyutin that was disallowed? Quick claimed he didn’t know the net was loose. “So it’s just, I guess, a lucky break,” he said. “You need to catch some breaks to win.”

Karma. Got to be.

Remember, not a single U.S. player was alive in 1980. Hell, Bylsma was only 10. I was watching in Ohio, inside a frat house, one of those places that still conducted Hell Week and had a Richie Incognito on every floor. Where were you? If you are older than 40, you remember exactly where you were on Feb. 22, 1980, and you recognize it as the day when communism and the color red began to fade, with a nudge from a crew of American hockey lads who didn’t know better and dismantled a Soviet Union machine.

The problem, more than three decades later, is that we’re still clinging to that memory in this country. Shouldn’t we finally let go of the Miracle on Ice, place it in a time capsule with Pac-Man machines, Bill Cosby’s sweaters and other 1980s waybacks? Closer to the point, isn’t it high time for Team USA to advance the Olympic narrative, provide a new watershed moment that proves America is a consistently elite hockey nation?

“I think the Miracle on Ice obviously is a great accomplishment for the U.S., but it was 34 years ago, and we’re still living on something that happened 34 years ago,” Backes said. “As great as it was, and awesome an accomplishment as it was, I think the guys here would like to write our own chapter, and then we can talk about ’80 and 2014.”

How perfect would it be, then, to write it over the next week? How cool would it be to keep showing up for games on Russian ice and, fortified by popularity spawned by the Miracle, winning another gold medal? If it wouldn’t have the political and social ramifications of the Miracle, it would be an even larger sports conquest in establishing America as a legitimate global powerhouse. Four years ago, Team USA nearly spooked Canada into a permanent depression, taking the hosts and their hockey-as-religion culture to overtime in the gold-medal game before settling for silver. Why wouldn’t the Americans, with the same mixture of strong goaltending and opportune goal-scoring, create similar anxieties in Sochi? “The standard was raised in 2010,” U.S. defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “Nothing else is acceptable for us now, other than gold.”

The juxtaposition of pressure, and relative lack thereof, is staggering. While the U.S. mission is gold, it doesn’t come with a national mandate as it does in Russia. The host nation could win every other event in the Winter Games, but if the hockey team produces anything less than gold, you sense it will put an enormous damper on Putin’s Olympics. When asked the other day by the Associated Press to list his biggest horror movies, Sochi 2014 organizing chief Dmitry Chernyshenko responded, “Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th … Miracle on Ice.”

He was asked to explain. “We all grew up in the culture that hockey is a religion in our country,” he said. “And we were educated by this very dramatic story of the competition between our two countries.”

So, imagine how Russia feels today, even if the Cold War is long over?It’s fabulous the teams met so early in the tournament, for a preliminary-round game that certainly was worth an early wakeup call in the Eastern time zone (7:30 a.m.) and even three hours earlier in Pacific time. The loser isn’t eliminated and the winner is assured of nothing, but we found out much about both teams and their capacity to win it all. The Americans should plan on continuing to have the time of their lives, because in our land, where hockey isn’t a dominant source of national pride, we aren’t demanding a championship. In Russia, gold almost seems a necessity for survival. “The Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians than any other athletes in the whole world,” star Alex Ovechkin said. “And since I was a little kid and since everybody was a little kid, their dream was playing in Olympic Games, especially if we have a chance to represent our country in Sochi in Russia. It’s unbelievable.”

“Yeah, this Olympics there is much more pressure,” Datsyuk said. “The pressure is enormous, and it’s growing every day. Everyone is expecting only one thing from us. And we won’t have the right to make an error.”

While Byslma, the Pittsburgh Penguins coach, isn’t operating under such intense scrutiny, he is faced with an ongoing decision that could help the Americans win a gold medal or sabotage their equilibrium. Does he stay with Quick, who had some queasy moments in regulation but was big in overtime and has built a resume the last two years as the best American-born goaltender? Or does he give alternating starts to Ryan Miller, who was magnificent at the 2010 Vancouver Games in going 5-1 with a .946 save percentage and nearly backstopping a gold-medal team? A one-man system usually is ideal in an Olympic tournament, allowing a goalie to get hot and carry a team, but a Quick/Miller tandem might defy conventional wisdom. “I’ve certainly seen past circumstances where two goaltenders have played in a tournament and the team has gone on to have success,” Bylsma said. So far, so good on Quick, whose vision was blocked on one goal and who won despite the explosive presence of Ovechkin, Datsyuk, Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk.

At least this time, the Russians weren’t overlooking Team USA, as Vladislav Tretiak said the other day. It was Tretiak, the Soviet goaltending legend, who was yanked after allowing two first-period goals in the Miracle game. He and his teammates were devastated, but they did return four years later to win gold in Sarajevo.

“It was a good lesson that the Americans taught us,” Tretiak told reporters. “You have to respect your competitors and only after the game can you tell what you think about them. We did not have respect for the competitors at that time, but we don’t have that during this Olympics. IN 1980, it was a miracle.”

His comments actually upset 1980 hero Mike Eruzione, who told the AP: “I was a little disappointed, frankly. That game meant a chance to win the gold medal. So tell me how a team of professionals — and, remember, the Soviets were 27- and 28-year-old career Army guys whose `job’ was playing hockey — doesn’t respect an opponent. It’s almost like they still can’t give us credit for being a good team.”

There is no such disrespect in 2014. The miracle, it seems, may be giving birth to a monster. Al Michaels, who delivered the most famous line in sportscasting history, has given way to Doc Emrick on play-by-play duties. This time, maybe Emrick will ask if we believe in monarchs.