Olympic Hockey: Americans head home without a medal after great start



SOCHI, Russia -- Dan Bylsma grimaced. Coaching Team USA these past 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 at home, he kept going back to this: The Canada game. It was the one they wanted more than anything, and having to recover from a bitter defeat in less than a day's time was 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 a semifinal Friday hoping for Olympic gold and experienced a dramatic 24-hour whiplash.

And 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," Westerlund said. "They play very well together. It was not an easy game. 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 Winter Games have ended this way? Why was Team Finland able to recover from its semifinal heartbreak against rival Sweden? How did Team USA go from scoring 20 goals in four games to netting none in the final 120 minutes of the tournament? Those are the questions 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 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 has 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 would take the ice again in a matter of hours.

And in the first period, Team USA seemed engaged. Players were diving all over, blocking shots and sacrificing their bodies. The U.S. team drew three penalties but couldn't get a power-play goal on Finland goalie Tuukka Rask, who tormented Bylsma a year ago in the Bruins' sweep of the Penguins in the Eastern Conference final. Rask 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 of the Penguins that came 11 seconds apart. Kane missed another penalty shot off the cross bar, and the Americans were deflated.

"A lot of frustration set in on our part," Team USA captain Zach Parise said. "Whether it was some feelings from [Friday], the disappointment of being where we were. ... And 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 played harder, and he did not back off that stance Saturday with the Finns.

"If we're honest about this, these last two games, we had better performances in the tank," Backes said. "If we played our butts off and just were ousted or had better teams against us, I think you can live with that. 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."

When another Finnish Penguins player, defenseman Olli Maatta, 19, scored the fifth goal with 6:51 left in the third, it was a full-fledged party at the Bolshoy Ice Dome. The Russian fans were backing the Finns, cheering lustily, and then it was easy to remember: They believed the United States won its group unfairly because of a disallowed Russia goal in the third period that sent the game to overtime, where T.J. Oshie won it for the Americans in a shootout.

Without that memory, what was there for Team USA to take home from Sochi? Not much.

"It's a little embarrassing," Parise said, "something that will frustrate all of us for a long time.

"With a medal on the line, you get blown out, 5-0, that's unacceptable at this stage of the tournament."


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published February 22, 2014 12:28 PM

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