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USA-Russia Was Great, but Stakes Weren't

by Scott Ward / Colorado Avalanche

Saturday’s anticipated USA-Russia matchup lived up to the pregame billing and was about as dramatic of a victory as there can be at this stage of the Olympics.

Tied 2-2 at the end of regulation. A little controversy. Still tied after the shootout. Still tied after each team took its three penalty shots.

And then … T.J. Oshie (Blues).

It was the type of game and subsequent memory that is the reason we love sports. There was plenty of drama and lots of emotion, lots of internal (adrenaline) and external (caffeine) nervousness and a final scene that brought the house down.

And in today’s technology-savvy world most enjoyed it with thousands and thousands of their closest “friends.”

I hopped on Twitter early in the first period and was amazed by the interaction. I wasn’t surprised there was excitement up and down my timeline but that it was happening en masse at a time when most of the country might have still been sleeping had it happened on any other Saturday.

The puck dropped at 4:30 p.m. in Sochi, so 7:30 a.m. on the East Coast and 5:30 a.m. in the Mountain Time zone. An early-alarm blare boosted most American hockey fans out of bed to their coffee makers and then to in front of their TVs, including United States President Barack Obama. Pretty cool.

Inevitably, some have compared the win to the Americans’ famous 1980 “Miracle on Ice” victory, but that’s not a just comparison and diminishes what that team did 34 years ago in Lake Placid and gives too much too soon to today's contest.

Don’t misunderstand me, though. Both games were great, and I’ll remember today’s win much more than the other, being as though I was two years shy from being born in 1980 and have really only seen that victory on the silver screen, with Kurt Russell playing the role of Herb Brooks instead of, you know, Herb Brooks playing the role of Herb Brooks.

But the stakes were so much higher in that previous USA-Russia game, and not just because of inherent political drama. Those "Miracle" Americans, mostly amateurs and collegiates, won that day and then again two days later against Finland to take home Olympic hockey gold.

Saturday’s victory for the United States was dramatic and important and provided great theater and all that, but in the end it was just a pool-play win.

The Americans still haven’t even clinched the Group A title and the automatic quarterfinals berth that comes with it because of its surrendered victory point by winning in overtime as opposed to regulation. In International Ice Hockey Federation play teams get three points for regulation wins, two points for an overtime or shootout win and one point for an overtime or shootout loss.

The Americans have the inside track to the Group A title Sunday against Slovenia (5:30 a.m. MT, NBCSN), but Russia could still win the group, too. Just something to keep in mind.

I’ve already seen much written about the importance of today's victory in the bigger sense, though, and I’m on board with that. In terms of it providing evidence that NHL players playing in the Olympics is immensely beneficial to the sport, Saturday’s victory couldn’t have been a better showcase. TV viewership numbers aren't in yet, but it's a good bet that records were set.

United States and Russian fans, as well as hockey fans in general, were watching this game--even though it might not even end up being the best game of this tournament. I'm sure those that will decide such things were watching and took notice.

It’s entirely possible today's game would have featured just as much drama had both rosters been composed of amateurs, but those same people who will decide NHL participation in the 2018 games know the level of play today wouldn’t have been nearly the same and a fan base like the Avalanche’s or of any other NHL team not named "St. Louis" wouldn’t have spent 10 minutes this morning cheering for a league rival in Oshie and then felt a little … dirty … afterward for doing so.

That’s sports, and this game represented everything good about them. It featured all-around impressive performances and hopefully served as a great appetizer for the rest of this Games tournament.

Following tomorrow’s final preliminary-round games “Win-or-go-home” will become one of the most ubiquitous phrases you’ll hear all the way through next week until Sunday’s gold-medal match (Feb. 23). It’s entirely possible we’ll see these teams play each other again. If that happens, say with a gold medal on the line, and if the result is just as dramatic then we’ll be talking.


STATS  | recap  |  PHOTOS

Around these parts, there was an added pregame storyline: Avalanche forward Paul Stastny is a member of Team USA, and Colorado goaltender Semyon Varlamov is in Sochi, too, representing Russia.

Saturday’s game was set to be the first of these Games to feature Avalanche teammates playing each other, but Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov decided to instead start Sergei Bobrovski (Bluejackets) and use Varlamov as a backup against the United States.

The intrasquad 'Stastny vs. Varlamov’ matchup never materialized.

Stastny finished with one second-period shot and was on the ice for 13:54, including much of the Americans’ penalty kill. He also won 10 of 16 faceoffs, with one of the biggest coming in the US zone near the end of overtime.

“It was a great game all around in an unbelievable setting and atmosphere,” said United States coach Dan Bylsma. “While it’s a big win for our team, we have to keep going forward.”


STATS  | recap

Daniel Alfredsson (Red Wings), Daniel Sedin (Canucks) and Erik Karlsson (Predators) had two points apiece in the final game Saturday as Sweden turned away Latvia 5-3 at Shayba Arena.

Gabriel Landeskog, the Avalanche’s captain and Sweden’s alternate captain, didn’t factor in any of his team’s scoring plays in his 15 minutes on the ice, across 21 shifts.

Sweden, the 2013 IIHF World Championship winners, finished 3-0-0-0 in Group C play and clinched a berth in Wednesday’s quarterfinals. Landeskog finished minus-one in Saturday’s win and is plus-one for the tournament. He assisted on a goal in Wednesday's win.

The Buffalo Sabres’ Zemgus Girgensons had a third-period score Saturday that pulled Latvia within 4-3, but a goal by Sweden defenseman Alexander Edler (Canucks) provided insurance for Sweden, which knocked off Czech Republic on Wednesday and Switzerland yesterday.

"I think we have to step it up big time before the next game," said center Patrik Berglund (Blues). "We haven't played well at all, I think. I think we struggled against Switzerland, and we struggled even more [Saturday]. They are really good teams, but we got to play better, and we haven't. We've been winning the games, but we haven't played well."


The Russians, Americans and Canadians will finish Group Play on Sunday. Russia takes on Slovakia (5:30 a.m. MT; USA, SNET) at the same time the USA faces Slovenia (5:30 a.m., NBCSN).

Team Canada and Matt Duchene will play Finland at 10 a.m. (BC, USA). Duchene was a healthy scratch Thursday against Norway, but he played yesterday in Canada's 6-0 win against Austria. Canada coach Mike Babcock hadn't announced his lineup for Sunday's game.

“Lots goes into it,” Babcock told “On the back end: Who are the best pairs? Who’s playing together? Who’s going to be on the power play and on the penalty kill? Who’s playing the best down the middle--who can support that person? Who’s playing better than we thought? Who’s not quite as good as we thought. All those things go into play.”

Duchene played in the Austria win alongside a pair of Anaheim Ducks in Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, and he was on the ice when Shea Weber (Predators) scored 10:12 into the game, giving Canada a 2-0 lead.

He took to Twitter after the game, celebrating a moment he’s been thinking of since he was a kid in Haliburton, Ontario.

"Thanks to everyone for the kind tweets," he said. "Tonight was a dream come true. Great win."

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