In a Winter Games full of anticlimactic finishes for Team USA, T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues assured that one of the Olympics' most anticipated matchups -- U.S. versus Russia in hockey -- lived up to its hype.
After 65 thrilling minutes that included an American power play and a breakaway by the Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane during overtime, the standoff went to a shootout. Russian Ilya Kovalchuck scored in the third round to send the shootout to sudden death, where the 27-year-old Oshie simply took over, sinking three of the next five shootout attempts, including the final goal that sent the U.S. team to a 3-2 win.
Unlike in the National Hockey League, international hockey rules allow teams to use a player multiple times in the shootout, a rule Team USA employed to its full advantage. Oshie was selected for the Olympic team in part because of his shootout mastery: So far this season, he boasts the most shootout goals of any player in the NHL, with a success rate of 70 percent. It's therefore clear why American head coach Dan Bylsma not only chose Oshie to open the shootout, but also rested the team's hopes of winning solely on Oshie's stick from the fourth round on.
This win -- in a preliminary round, against an old foe, in front of a hostile crowd -- was huge. More than three decades after the storied "Miracle on Ice," the U.S.-Russia rivalry has been renewed and is as fierce as ever, as evidenced by the tussle between players Ryan Callahan and Evgeny Medvedev early in the game. The high tensions naturally brewed controversy: Russian Fedor Tyutin blasted what appeared to be the go-ahead goal past U.S. goaltender Jonathan Quick with fewer than five minutes remaining in the third period, but the goal was disallowed after review, much to the chagrin of the Russian crowd. It wasn't immediately clear why the goal was waved off, or why the referees chose to review the play, but it shortly emerged that the net had been dislodged, barely, on an earlier shot during the shift.
Team USA still has much work to do. Despite the dramatic finish, the victory wasn't quite ideal. ESPN's Pierre LeBrun notes that under international rules, an extra-time win is awarded two, not three, points, meaning that one of the other undefeated teams (Canada, Sweden or Finland) could get ranked ahead of the U.S. by winning the rest of the preliminary games in regulation. The ranking affects quarterfinal matchups, integral in the ultimate quest for gold.
The U.S. can still enjoy its hard-fought victory; but only briefly -- the team faces Slovenia tomorrow. For Russia the loss is palpable; in a country that claims hockey as a way of life, today's clash was a matter of national pride and lofty expectations. PresidentVladimir Putin himself touted the significance of the game, an important step to redemption for a Russian hockey team that finished a disappointing sixth in the 2010 Vancouver Games. As NBC's Doc Emrick put it: "Many people paid many rubles hoping to see the home team win. Not tonight."
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