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Sochi Olympics produce an early instant classic

Saturday, 02.15.2014 / 1:44 PM
Shawn P. Roarke  - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor

SOCHI -- Greatness can't be bequeathed. It must be taken.

On Saturday afternoon at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, Russia and the United States played in a great hockey game, an instant classic, at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The Americans emerged victorious, 3-2 in the shootout, but it took some high drama, sublime displays of skill, a bit of controversy, eight rounds of the shootout and a career-defining performance from American forward T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues before greatness was finally earned and rightfully granted.

Nobody who played in the game will ever forget it; none will be the same after it.

"It was awesome," said American forward Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks. "Whatever type of game you want to explain it as, it was that."

It matters not that the Americans won nothing with the victory other than an extra point in the Group A standings and a bit of pride. The U.S. team could still lose the group with a stinker against a scrappy Slovenia team Sunday (7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN), and the hurdles in the knockout stage are almost too difficult to navigate.

The Americans beat host Canada in preliminary play four years ago in Vancouver. It was a statement game; an instant classic. A week later, the Americans were wearing silver instead of gold because Canada won the game that truly mattered.

The implications of this game will be left for history to debate. On Saturday, as another perfect day at the base of the Caucasus Mountains was punctuated by the sun being extinguished by the Black Sea just outside the Bolshoy Arena, these two fierce hockey rivals captivated the eyes focused on the Olympics and wouldn't let go.

Heading into Sochi, this Group A showdown was billed as a great game, the host nation playing the biggest villain from its glorious hockey past in one of the crown-jewel buildings of the Olympic complex.

It was to be the Miracle on Ice in reverse. The Americans were sending their hot-shot team -- the defending Olympic silver medalist -- to Russia to face a host team eager to prove its merits after an embarrassing showing in Vancouver four years ago.

Vladislav Tretiak, the legendary Russian goaltender who played a central role in the 1980 passion play in the mountains of New York, took center stage at a press conference earlier this week, banging the drum for the Russian team. The American players from that magical sporting moment were interviewed and quoted repeatedly in the run-up to this game by journalists eager to paint this prelim contest as a rematch of the Miracle on Ice; a rematch on par with the "Thrilla in Manila," the third and final fight between rivals Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

However, these players weren't buying what was being sold for catchy headlines. For them, history was just that -- history. They were ready to write their own narrative, and they did, authoring a hockey tale with enough plot twists to satisfy the harshest critic.

The Russians scored first, off the brilliance of Pavel Datsyuk, playing on a bad leg. Cam Fowler, perhaps the last defenseman selected for this team, tied it for the Americans. The United States forged ahead on a goal by Pavelski, made possible by a brilliant pass from Patrick Kane. Russia answered, again on a goal by Datsyuk, as the teams traded punches in the third period.

The Russians appeared to land the knockout blow in the form of a Fedor Tyutin slap shot that rose over the shoulder of goaltender Jonathan Quick and clanged off the bar in the back of the net. However, the net was slightly off its moorings, knocked loose earlier in the sequence by Quick's leg pad, and after a video review, the goal was disallowed.

Slava Voynov, a teammate of Quick's with the Los Angeles Kings but an opponent Saturday, suggested Quick may have intentionally unmoored the net, adding a little international intrigue to the proceedings.

The Chicago Blackhawks' Kane, perhaps the most talented natural scorer on the American team, twice had the game on his stick in overtime but could not convert either opportunity.

The five minute 4-on-4 overtime finished in a blur, allowing a much-need exhale. After 65 minutes of unequaled artistry interspersed with spellbinding savagery, the contest moved to the shootout, a tiebreaker decried by its critics as a skills competition.

Nobody, however, was decrying the skills displayed in this memorable shootout. The Detroit Red Wings' Datsyuk was at his absolute Datsyukian best. Former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk scored a shootout goal seemingly filled with impudence as he casually flipped the puck past Quick.

"I don't know how you do that," American forward David Backes said of the Kovalchuk goal, which he termed a fade-away flipper, "but I might practice that on Monday."

But it was Oshie, Backes' teammate, and road roommate with the Blues, who had the final say, scoring his fourth shootout goal of the night, on his sixth attempt, to secure the victory.

He zigged one way, zagged the other, slowly; the puck on his stick almost hypnotically as he cruised toward Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Then, as soon as he saw an opening, he snapped his wrists violently, propelling the puck through the small opening between the goalie's leg pads.

Game over.

Greatness granted.

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