SOCHI – These are the kinds of games that make the marathon flights and the long days at the rink all worth it. These are the kinds of games that should make the NHL realize it absolutely has to continue coming to the Olympics. These are the kinds of games that turn even the biggest shootout haters come around, if only a little.
It’s safe to say these eyes have watched more than 1,000 hockey games live during my lifetime. A few of them stand out more than others. The best game I’ve ever seen was the semifinal of the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge between Ontario and USA in 2000. (That one went to a shootout, too.) Both games between the Oshawa Generals and Kitchener Rangers in the 1990 Memorial Cup make the list, as does Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final in 2006 between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Edmonton Oilers.
And now, thanks to a bunch of things – I can’t decide between the shootout performance of Timothy Oshie Jr., and the magic of Pavel Datsyuk – USA’s 3-2 shootout win over Russia in the 2014 Winter Olympics has at least entered the conversation. It was everything best-on-best hockey should be – fast, physical, full of skill, rife with personal sacrifice and decided by a razor-thin margin.
If the NHL can’t market the game on a global level using this game as a prime example, perhaps it really is time for the league to get out of the Olympics. And that would be a shame because we would no longer be able to witness moments like this one.
Stars are made in the NHL, but they often get a turn to shine in moments like this one. Oshie is a terrific NHL player to be sure and, obviously one of the best in the shootout, but his play in the first two games of this tournament has exposed him for all the world to see. To focus too much on his 4-for-6 showing in the shootout, as tempting as it is to do that, would not do the 27-year old justice at all. U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said Oshie was his team’s best player in USA’s 7-1 win over Slovakia in the first game of the tournament. And to focus too much on his shootout heroics would take away from the absolute beast he was – along with Ryan Kesler and Ryan McDonagh – on the penalty kill. Russia had more than eight minutes of power play time and scored only once, in large part because of the sacrifices made by Oshie, Kesler and McDonagh.
But the shootout will be what makes Oshie a household name now, the same way they did for Oshie’s University of North Dakota teammate Jonathan Toews when Toews scored three shootout goals in the semifinal of the 2007 World Junior Championship. (Irony alert: Toews and Oshie are still close friends and even got into a little alcohol-fuelled, boys-will-be-boys trouble at North Dakota when they were cited for underage drinking. After that performance, consider his community service completed.)
Bylsma said after the game that he was prepared to keep going back to Oshie, who is tied for the NHL lead with seven shootout goals (on only 10 attempts) and is 25-for-49 over the course of his career. Jonathan Quick, who saved USA at the other end, certainly wasn’t surprised to see Oshie keep shooting. Oshie scored on a penalty shot on Quick less than a month ago and Quick said he’s been burned by Oshie a number of times.
“He’s got enough moves,” said teammate Joe Pavelski, no slouch in the shootout himself said of Oshie. “I guess he doesn’t need nerves.”
As for Datsyuk, his performance was surreal. Not only did he score both Russia’s goals, he was a scoring and playmaking threat every time he was one the ice. Datsyuk has long been considered one of the most purely skilled players in the NHL and he showed exactly why he merits that kind of praise.
The game even had a little controversy. Russia scored what looked to be the go-ahead goal late in the game, but it was called back because the American net had been dislodged. Slava Voynov, who plays with Quick on the Los Angeles Kings, was having none of it. He said the reason the net was dislodged was because Quick did it. “I play with him,” Voynov said. “I know that’s his style.”
Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said he thought American referee Brad Meier made a mistake, but did not spend a lot of time stewing over the call. The person he should have really been upset with was Alex Radulov, whose two lazy penalties led to USA goals in regulation time.
The result was certainly not a tournament killer for Russia, provided it can get past a beaten and demoralized Slovak team that suffered an embarrassing 3-1 loss to Slovenia in the previous game. There is still a lot of hockey left to be played and if it comes close to matching what we saw Saturday, well, bring it on.