The U.S.’s Justin Faulk and Joe Pavelski react as Finland celebrates a goal during the third period of the men's bronze medal hockey game.
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SOCHI, Russia — Dan Bylsma grimaced. Coaching Team USA these last two weeks had been the greatest honor of his career. Now it was over, and it was his job to explain a 5-0 loss to Finland in the bronze medal game that would have been unthinkable 24 hours earlier.
Shell-shocked like the whole country watching back home, he kept going back to this: The Canada game. It was the one they had wanted more than anything, and having to recover from a bitter defeat in less then a day’s time had been too much for his guys. Not many contests in sports require the emotional 180 of a bronze medal game. The Americans simply couldn’t manufacture the passion needed to lower their heads and put a medal around their necks.
That explanation won’t play well with the U.S. hockey fans who went into Friday’s semifinal hoping for Olympic gold and experienced a dramatic 24-hour whiplash.
Finland coach Erkka Westerlund didn’t help matters when he jumped into the fray. He just wanted to say something about Bylsma’s team.
“I think the United States has maybe the best team in this tournament,” he said. “They play very well together. It was not an easy game tonight. We had our momentum. But we think the USA as a team, it’s maybe the best in this tournament.”
If that were true, then how could these Sochi Winter Games have ended this way? Why was Team Finland able to recover from its semifinal heartbreak against rival Sweden? How did the U.S. go from scoring 20 goals in four games to netting none in the final 120 minutes of the tournament? Those are the questions that Bylsma and his players will live with for the next four years.
“We’re dealing right now with the disappointment of not coming here and doing what we thought we could do,” Bylsma said. “And that disappointment, that’s not going to go away.”
From the moment that Team USA walked into the dressing room after Canada, Bylsma had to work away at their psyches and refashion their goal from gold to bronze. That is unlike any motivational challenge he’s had to face as coach of the Penguins. In the NHL, when the dream dies, you don’t have to play again for months. Here, they’d take the ice again in a matter of hours.
In the first period, the U.S. seemed engaged. Players were diving all over, blocking shots and sacrificing their bodies. The U.S. drew three penalties but couldn’t get a power play goal on Finland goalie Tuukka Rask. He also stopped a Patrick Kane penalty shot with his left pad.
In the second period, Finland scored twice in the first 1:38 behind goals from Teemu Selanne and Jussi Jokinen that came 11 seconds apart. Kane would miss another penalty shot off the cross bar, and the Americans were deflated.
“A lot of frustration set in on our part,” U.S. captain Zach Parise said. “Whether it was some feelings from last night, the disappointment of being where we were … an then I think we started trying to beat guys one on one, and we stopped playing that team game that got us to where we are.”
Some of the U.S. players were more critical than others. Forward David Backes said after the Canada loss that the Canadians had played harder, and he did not back off that stance on Saturday with the Finns.
“If we’re honest about this, these last two games, we had better performances in the tank,” Backes said. “ When it’s less than stellar performances, especially in a tournament like this where it’s one and done and you’re playing for your country and there shouldn’t be anything held back, it’s going to be a sour, sour feeling for a while.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. J. Brady McCollough is a reporter for the Post Gazette.