March 7, 2014

From NEHJ: Team USA suffers meltdown in Sochi

By Wayne Fish

Jonathan Quick was brilliant in a 1-0 semifinal loss to Canada but had to retrieve the puck from his goal five times in a bronze-medal game loss to Finland. (Getty Images)

Sochi, Russia — Perhaps it was the wrong time to ask the question, but the answer was about as honest as it gets.

Max Pacioretty was approached just minutes after the United States men’s hockey team had suffered its second straight shutout loss — this one to Finland — to wind up without a medal at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

This only a day after a particularly painful loss to Canada by a 1-0 count in the semifinals.

Pacioretty, who hails from New Canaan, Conn., had played well (like the rest of his American teammates) in skating to a 4-0 record through the quarterfinals, outscoring the opposition, 20-6. But when it mattered most, the Americans couldn’t come up with the timely hit, the timely stop or the timely goal.

That said, USA had given a game effort against Canada, and an emotional letdown against the Finns was both predictable and understandable. But a 5-0 loss to Finland in the bronze-medal game? That was hard to take.

Still, taking the Olympic performance as a whole, it was a pretty game effort.

Based on that, Pacioretty was asked, as an Olympian, if he had been proud to represent the New England area. “I’m not proud at all right now,’’ a frustrated Pacioretty said. “We let down that area.’’

Pacioretty echoed what a lot of Americans were saying — that they know they’re a better team than what they showed on the ice. But against a powerhouse Canadian squad, one goal made the difference.

“We just didn’t show up,’’ Pacioretty said. “There’s no excuse why.’’

The fact that Canada gave up only one goal in its last three games, including a 3-0 win over silver-medalist Sweden in the finals, provided little consolation to the Americans.

They had gained so much confidence from a 3-2 multi-shootout win over Russia in the preliminary round, plus a dominant 5-2 victory over the Czech Republic; and then to see it all slip away in 60 minutes against their northern neighbors was frustrating.

The thrilling win over the Russians was one of the highlights of every player on the American roster.

This game had everything — from a controversial no-goal call near the end to a crazy shootout that saw T.J. Oshie score an amazing four goals.

And perhaps lost in all the buzz about Oshie’s display was a key save Quick made on Ilya Kovalchuk just before Oshie’s final’s score.

When it was over and the United States had secured the win at Bolshoy Ice Dome, both sides marveled at the atmosphere, which stayed electric for the better part of three hours. The longtime rivals went back and forth in a game that put USA in the Group A lead but had little other importance.

Russia thought it had the game won with about five minutes to play when a shot by defenseman Fyodor Tyutin eluded Quick. The play went to review, which clearly showed the puck entering the net. But officials waved off the goal, saying the left post was off its mooring.

So the contest went to a five-minute overtime, then a shootout. Coach Dan Bylsma went to Oshie for his first shooter, and he scored on ex-Flyers goaltender Sergei Bobrovski. Kovalchuk tied it, and that’s the way it stayed for three more scoreless attempts.

In international play, after three rounds,a coach can use whatever shooter he wants. Bylsma, knowing a good thing, stayed with Oshie, who first matched a goal from Pavel Datsyuk (who scored both Russian goals in regulation time) and another from Kovalchuk.

First-time Olympian Max Pacioretty (New Canaan, Conn.) and Team USA failed to medal. (Getty Images)

Then, when Quick stopped Kovalchuk, Oshie scored an incredible fourth time, igniting chants of “USA! USA!’’ from a small American contingent.

Sandwiched around the victory over Russia were convincing wins against Slovenia and Slovakia. But when Canada came calling, it was a different story. Then Finland piled on.

“We let down our country,’’ Pacioretty stated. “It wasn’t hard to get up for Finland. We were playing for a medal. And we just didn’t show up.’’

Was he personally disappointed? “Of course,’’ he responded.

Across the interview area at Bolshoy IceDome, goaltender Jonathan Quick sounded equally frustrated after the performance against Finland. He had been nothing short of sensational in the Canada game, turning aside all but one shot — that from the stick of Jamie Benn — yet he felt little consolation.

Quick, a native of Hamden, Conn., wasn’t buying the idea that the Finns had some kind of “rest advantage’’ over the Americans. Finland had lost to Sweden in a game starting at 4 p.m. on Friday, and USA didn’t take the ice until 9 p.m. So it was only about a 16-hour turnaround for Bylsma’s crew.

“It shouldn’t be too hard,” a disgusted Quick said of the back-to-back situation. “We do that all year long. We’re professionals. We play back-to-backs all year long.’’

Quick shouldered much of the blame himself. “My job is to stop the puck, and I didn’t do that very well,” he said after giving up all five Finland goals on 29 shots. “(It was a) team effort. We weren’t good.”

Just before the semifinal game against Canada, Quick addressed his feelings about representing Connecticut at the Games. In his prep years, Quick attended Old Avon Farms School in Connecticut, the same school that produced another famous American Olympian, Brian Leetch (Cheshire, Conn.). Quick said he was proud to represent the New England area.

“There are a few guys on the team from that area,’’ Quick said. “Obviously it means a lot to represent that area and your country. To be able to do that, it’s quite an honor. It’s a pleasure being on this team.’’

The thing about Olympic hockey is that it comes around only every four years. So to predict what sort of impact the fallout from these Games might have on the American program is virtually impossible.

But even Canadian players pointed out that this is a very young American team that will only grow from the experience, and guys like Pacioretty and Quick still have long careers in front of them.

Prior to the quarterfinal game against the Czech Republic, Quick talked about the team’s state of mind. “We have a lot of confidence in there,’’ he said. “Obviously we know we need to play better.’’

Quick, like just about every other player in this tournament, was asked if he would like to see the NHL stay in the Olympics. “Yeah, I would go (to South Korea) if asked,’’ he said. “But that’s four years from now.’’

For Quick, the adjustment to the larger ice surface did not seem all that difficult. He credited the U.S. defense with making his job a lot easier. “They’ve competed in front of our net when there are rebounds,’’ he said. “With the bigger ice, you tend to see those ‘seam’ plays a bit more often.

“They’ve been doing a great job of keeping them outside the dots. Trying to give them as little of an angle as possible.’’

Then came the games that counted the most, and the U.S. couldn’t quite challenge for its first gold medal since the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980.

Kevin Shattenkirk, who was born in Greenwich, Conn., but grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., expressed his frustration, similar to that of Pacioretty and Quick. All three players enjoyed good individual tournaments. But all that got lost in the disappointment of the team’s failure to get a chance at the big prize, particularly after the overtime loss to Canada in the gold-medal game at Vancouver in 2010.

Now all the New England players can do is hope they get another chance when the Olympics roll around again in PyeongChang, South Korea, four years hence.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of New England Hockey Journal.