SOCHI -- After playing 65 minutes of even hockey they'll likely never forget, 20 players wearing the red, white and blue became spectators with the best seats in the house for one of the most intense spectacles they'll likely ever see.
It took a dramatic eight-round shootout featuring some of the most skilled shooters in the world before a winner could be determined in what was arguably the most anticipated and hyped international hockey game since Canada and the United States played for the gold medal four years ago in Vancouver.
St. Louis Blues forward T.J. Oshie was the scoring champion, going 4-for-6 in the shootout, to lift the United States to a 3-2 win against Russia in a circus-like atmosphere featuring 11,678 people packed into Bolshoy Ice Dome on Saturday blowing air horns, waving flags, and some even dressed as flags.
"I aged a couple of years in that shootout," United States coach Dan Bylsma said.
And this was only a preliminary round game. It's possible the Americans and Russians play again later in the tournament when it's win-or-else time.
"It was awesome," U.S. center Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks said. "Whatever type of game you want to explain it as, it was that."
The Americans now have a chance to clinch Group A and receive an automatic bye into the quarterfinals when they play Slovenia on Sunday (7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN). The No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals is still up for grabs, but the U.S. no longer has control of it after losing one point because the game went to overtime.
Teams get three points for a regulation win, two points for an overtime or shootout win, and one point for an overtime or shootout loss.
Russia still has a shot at clinching the top spot in Group A, but it needs to beat Slovakia on Sunday (7:30 a.m. ET, USA, SNET) and get some help from Slovenia. The U.S. leads the group with six points to Russia's four.
"Play the same game and we'll win," Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin said of Russia. "It was a good game, very interesting, the best game we played so far. We showed great hockey."
Oshie scored in the first, fifth, sixth and eighth rounds of the shootout. Jonathan Quick's glove save on Ilya Kovalchuk in the top of the eighth round gave Oshie the chance to win the game by beating Russia goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for the winner in the bottom half.
Oshie's goals in the fifth and sixth rounds kept the shootout alive.
Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk, who had both of Russia's goals in regulation, gave the Russians a 2-1 shootout lead in the fifth round, but Oshie came back to tie it. Kovalchuk made it 3-2 in the sixth, but beat Bobrovsky with a shot into the top right corner to tie it again.
International Ice Hockey Federation rules allow coaches to select a player to shoot multiple times if the shootout extends beyond the third round. Bylsma said there was zero consideration among the coaches on the bench toward going with someone other than Oshie, who is 7-for-10 (70 percent) in the shootout this season and 25-for-46 (54.3 percent) with 12 game-deciding goals for his career.
"He's been outstanding and by far has the best numbers on our team history-wise and this year in particular," Bylsma said. "Once we got to the fourth shooter, with the quality of moves he had, we were going to ride him out."
Oshie joked he was glad to end the shootout when he did because he was running out of moves.
Ironically, he didn't score on two of his better moves as he missed an open net with a shot wide to the right in the fourth round, and Bobrovsky had to come up with a majestic, reaching-back paddle save to stop him in the seventh round.
"Somebody asked me what kind of dog he would be if he was a dog?" said David Backes, Oshie's teammate with the Blues and his roommate here in Sochi. "I said, 'He's a Jack Russell terrier.' He needs his attention directed or else he gets into a little mischief and he needs it guided. Today it was all functioned and funneled in the right way. He does some amazing things when it is."
The Russians thought they had taken a 3-2 lead with 4:40 left in the third period when Fedor Tyutin's shot from the point was deflected in front by Alexander Radulov and past Quick (29 saves) on the high-glove side.
However, after referee Brad Meier pointed at the net to signify it was a goal, the referees conferred and decided to take a closer look. Television replays showed the net was slightly dislodged at the right post at the time the puck went in, so the officials took the goal away by following IIHF rules, which state no goal shall be allowed "if the net has been displaced from its normal position, or the frame of the goal net is not completely flat on the ice."
Bylsma said he never received an explanation as to why the goal was not allowed. He obviously wasn't complaining.
"I still don't know if it was a high stick or the net went off the mooring or God went in there and stopped it," Backes said. "I'm not sure."
The Russians blamed Quick for knocking the net off himself. Slava Voynov, who is Quick's teammate with the Los Angeles Kings, told reporters in Russian that he has seen the goalie do it before.
"I don't know what happened there, but definitely was a goal," Russia and Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said. "Nobody touched the net. Their goalie touched the net and put it out. But the referee has to see it and at least give him two minutes, you know?"
The United States took a 2-1 lead at 9:27 of the third period when Pavelski delivered the Americans their second power-play goal of the game with Radulov in the penalty box. Radulov was also in the penalty box when Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler scored a game-tying power play goal with 3:26 left to play in the second period. That goal came more than seven minutes after Datsyuk gave the Russians a 1-0 lead.
However, Russia tied the game at 2-2 less than three minutes after Pavelski's goal as Datsyuk scored his second of the game, and the Russians first on five power-play opportunities.
Kane had a chance to win the game with approximately 2:30 left in overtime when he was sprung for a breakaway, but Bobrovsky closed his pads just in time to stop his attempt at the five-hole.
The Americans would have poured over the boards had Kane scored right then and there, but they had to wait, and wait, and wait some more before Oshie and Quick did enough so all 22 players, the coaching staff and really an entire nation of hockey fans could breathe a sigh of relief and start their celebration.
"I'm going to be in bed [Saturday night] thinking about it," Fowler said, "and I'll be thinking about it for the rest of my career."