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, Dostoyevsky and 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 hockey craftsmanship.
Back in America, they likely were lamenting that this game would end in a shootout. In Sochi, and throughout this beautiful, bulging nation that spans nine time zones, they were preparing for a certain celebration. President Vladimir Putin was in the house, hoping to watch his team bull toward its first gold medal since the fall of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of flags waved in the Bolshoy Ice Dome, 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.
And 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.
Oshie skated to the right, then moved left, sizing up Russia goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky before easily slipping his shot between his pads. After Team USA goalie Jonathan 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 Penguins coach 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 Bobrovsky 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 such as Patrick Kane and Zach Parise, sitting and watching, all 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.
But 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 would make 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 out there, Oshie!
Now the small packs of Team USA fans in the 12,000-seat arena were chanting his name, understanding this was their guy.
"I was just thinking of something else I could do," said Oshie, who moved to Warroad, Minn., a small town that dubs itself "Hockeytown, USA" to finish high school against better competition. "I was trying to do a couple of moves that looked like the one before and try to get him to bite on that."
From the bench, David Backes, Oshie's teammate with the Blues, was feeling confident.
"He's such a gamer," Backes said. "He wanted to be there. He's got a fast heartbeat.
"Someone asked me what kind of dog he would be if he was a dog, and I said he's a Jack Russell Terrier. He needs his attention directed or else he gets into a little mischief. Today, he was all functioning and funneled the right way, and he does some amazing things when he's like that. He's a well-potty-trained Jack Russell Terrier."
Oshie got the go-ahead from the referee and skated slowly and coolly into American lore, putting his shot between Bobrovsky's legs once again to give Team USA a 3-2 shootout victory. He had 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, N.Y.
"I aged a couple years in that shootout," Bylsma said. "That's part of the glory in it, is that pressure that builds up, and this game had all of that."
But, for many reasons, this was no "Miracle." The politics have changed; so has the sport's landscape. The Americans were one goal away from taking gold four years ago, and, with a lot of talented young guys like Oshie on the way up, Team USA no longer views itself as an underdog on the international scene.
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. But 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 made their way around Bolshoy. A Russian journalist would ask Russia coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov if he had a problem with referee Brad Meier being an American. It also was noted that the Russian players had said bumping the net off its mooring was a trick Quick has used in the NHL.
All Bilyaletdinov could say in response was, "What can I do?"
Overall, this loss was no national disaster for the Russians, who remain in the running for the fourth automatic quarterfinal spot because they got one point from this Saturday night affair. Even after losing to the Americans, the Russians skated off the ice to polite applause from their remaining fans, who were able to see the big picture.
Team USA can clinch a spot in the quarterfinals today with a win or a tie against Slovenia, and, with so little time to prepare for the next game, the natural assumption would be that Bylsma and his players would not have time to enjoy their epic, courageous win.
But, after giving his thoughts on the game, Bylsma walked to the outer part of the arena, through a tunnel to his wife, Mary Beth, and son Bryan, who were waiting for him. They hugged and continued into the NHLPA's lounge reserved for players and their families, where most of the Americans were chowing down on mashed potatoes, vegetables and soup.
It was in that room that Dan Bylsma went to the bar and ordered a cold one. On this night, as darkness dropped its curtain on the Black Sea, he would savor every sip.
J. Brady McCollough: email@example.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published February 15, 2014 12:07 PM