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SOCHI, Russia — They were supposed to be the team with more skill, more creativity, and a state-sanctioned amount of Russian flamboyance. Here in the country of Tchaikovsky, of Dostoyevsky, of Baryshnikov, they couldn’t have fashioned a finer formula for victory:
Their graceful masters, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, and Ilya Kovalchuk, against whomever Team USA coach Dan Bylsma would pick from his bench, in the ultimate test of individual ice hockey craftsmanship.
Back in America, they were lamenting that this game had to end in a shootout. In Sochi, and throughout the nation, they were preparing for a certain celebration. President Vladimir Putin there, hoping to watch his team bully toward its first gold medal since the fall of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of flags waved, including some red ones with the yellow hammer and sickle. Horns honked, fans chanted, and fathers lifted their small sons into the air so they could see history.
Then a kid from the state of Washington hopped over the boards and onto the ice. Yes, Washington. When Americans sing “from sea to shining sea,” they really mean it. Not many hockey players come from the Pacific Northwest, but here was one. He wore No. 74, this blue-eyed, brown-haired T.J. Oshie. He was not a star in his country like Malkin, Datsyuk, and Kovalchuk. He was just one of America’s best 22, and apparently, one of its top three marksmen.
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Oshie skated to the right and then moved left, sizing up Russia goaltender Sergei Bobrovski before easily slipping his shot between his pads. After Team USA goalie Johnathan Quick stopped Malkin and Datsyuk and Americans James Van Riemsdyk and Joe Pavelski failed to add to the lead, it would be up to Kovalchuk to keep the Russians alive, and he fired the puck by Quick’s glove and into the net.
The shootout would extend until one team won a turn, and, in a unique Olympic twist, the coaches would have the option of sending out the same guy to shoot each time.
Oshie knew that he would be in the mix for another opportunity, especially after making his first. What he didn’t know was that Bylsma was prepared to ride him the whole way, that the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins and former Bowling Green State University forward had seen something that special in the St. Louis Blues forward.
In the fourth round, Kovalchuk and Oshie missed right.
In the fifth, Datsyuk and Oshie found the net.
In the sixth, Kovalchuk and Oshie scored.
In the seventh, Quick stoned Datsyuk, while Bobrovski barely kept Oshie’s backhand attempt out of the net. Oshie returned to the bench, still unsure of whether Bylsma would choose another player.
“I was waiting to see if someone else was going to go,” Oshie said.
Oshie wanted the stage, but he didn’t want to be presumptuous. There was a lot of talent on that Team USA bench, guys like Patrick Kane and Zach Parise, sitting and watching, all of them thinking about what they would do if Bylsma called their name and sent them into the crucible of a do-or-die shootout.
“At some point, you’re thinking, ‘Does he have any moves left?’ ” Parise said.
Bylsma was listening to his gut, and it kept saying Oshie.
“I don’t think T.J. expected to be called every time,” Bylsma said. “He didn’t act like he was going to be called every time. At one point, after a miss, T.J. went to the other end of the bench and I almost lost him. I was looking for him up and down the bench to try to find him and call him again, and he showed up on the opposite end by a defenseman.”
Quick made a terrific, off-balance save on Kovalchuk’s next attempt, giving the Americans the chance to win it with one well-placed eighth shot. Well, get on out there, Oshie!
The small packs of Team USA fans in the 12,000-seat arena were chanting his name, understanding that this was their guy.
“I was just thinking of something else I could do,” Oshie said. “I was trying to do a couple of moves that looked like the one before and try to get him to bite on that.”
Oshie got the go-ahead from the referee and skated slowly and coolly into American lore, putting his shot between Bobrovski’s legs once again to give Team USA a 2-2 shootout victory. He made four of his six shots, outdueling the Russians’ best on their home soil, and his teammates poured onto the ice to mob him. Team USA had drawn first blood in this beast of a tournament, and given the fans back home a new memory to cherish, 34 years after a bunch of college kids did the unthinkable in Lake Placid.
“I aged a couple years in that shootout,” Byslma said. “That’s part of the glory in it, is that pressure that builds up, and this game had all of that.”
It was no miracle, but there was some luck involved, and it’s possible that the game never should have gone to overtime, that Oshie should have never become a hero. With 4:40 left in the third period, it looked as if the Russians had taken a 3-2 lead on a Fyodor Tyutin shot from the point. The goal was reviewed, and it was determined that the net had come off its mooring before the puck crossed the line, and the goal was disallowed.
Later, Cold War-esque conspiracy theories were making their way around. It was also noted that the Russian players had said that bumping the net off its mooring was a trick that Quick has used in the NHL.
This loss was no national disaster for the Russians, who are still in the running for the fourth automatic quarterfinal spot because they got one point from Saturday night’s affair.
Team USA can clinch a spot in the quarterfinals today with a win or a tie against Slovenia
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
J. Brady McCollough is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.