The United States lost its shot at a gold medal when it was beaten by Canada, 1-0, in the Olympic semifinals Friday.
It likely lost any realistic hope of taking home a bronze medal at the same time.
Oh, it took a 5-0 loss to Finland in the bronze-medal game the next day to make a fourth-place finish official for the U.S., but Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who ran Team USA’s bench, clearly believes the impact of the Canadians’ victory was felt long after that game had ended.
“You play a 1-0 game and what you came there for, really, to win a gold medal, is gone,” he said. “We had to deal with that disappointment going on to the next game.
“I don’t think you get rid of the disappointment. I don’t think you say, ‘Hey, you can put this game behind you, and let’s move on.’”
Team USA clearly didn’t and, after a solid first period against the Finns, turned in a fairly lifeless final 40 minutes to close out the tournament with its second consecutive defeat.
“For sure, we wanted it more, and it showed,” said Penguins rookie defenseman Olli Maatta, who played for Finland. “It’s not easy to find motivation for the bronze-medal game after a tough loss.”
The Finns got theirs by rallying around future Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne, who was making his final appearance on the national team.
“He was our idol, growing up,” said Penguins forward Jussi Jokinen, who also played for Finland.
The U.S. had no such incentive. Just the empty ache of a one-goal loss to its arch-rival in a rematch of the gold-medal game four years earlier.
Penguins general manager Ray Shero, associate general manager of Team USA, praised the Canadians lavishly Tuesday, saying they “might be the greatest Olympic hockey team ever.”
Two of that team’s members, center Sidney Crosby and left winger Chris Kunitz, play for the Penguins, who now must focus on the final 24 games of the regular season before trying to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
Of the seven Penguins who played in the Olympics, it is likely that none will be more eager to get immersed in the NHL season than Russian center Evgeni Malkin, whose team didn’t make it past the quarterfinals.
“I talked to Evgeni,” Bylsma said. “Probably the third thing out of Evgeni’s mouth was the Stanley Cup and coming back here and being focused on that.
“We have 24 games to get back and be focused on this team being the best it can be and getting to the Stanley Cup [final] and winning.”
Malkin should be flanked by his usual linemates, Jokinen and James Neal, when the Penguins face Montreal at 7:08 p.m. Thursday at Consol Energy Center.
Who will line up alongside Crosby and Kunitz on the top unit isn’t clear, although Brian Gibbons appears to be the favorite.
He’s the most recent replacement for Pascal Dupuis, who will miss the rest of the season after knee surgery two weeks ago. Whether the Penguins will try to bring in a more experienced fill-in before the March 5 trade deadline remains to be seen, although Shero made that seem unlikely.
“In terms of trying to replace Pascal Dupuis with a top-line winger, I think that’s going to be a bit far-fetched,” he said.
Even if the Penguins were inclined to pursue an established top-six winger, they almost certainly would have to clear salary-cap space to make it possible. Capgeek.com, the leading authority on such matters, says they have no more than $1,195,000 in annual space available.
Most of the movement at this time of year involves “rental players,” which are guys — nearly always from teams out of serious playoff contention — who are about to become unrestricted free agents. The Penguins added three of those (Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray) near the deadline in 2013.
With so many teams having limited cap space available, however, it’s possible that playoff contenders will swap UFAs-to-be, rather than surrendering draft picks or prospects to bring in a rental.
“You could see that,” Shero said. “If you want to trade a defenseman for a forward or vice versa, if you have that need, you’re not so concerned about the [potential UFA’s] status. I could see that happening.”
What the Penguins will look like when the deadline passes is hard to predict, but the team as now configured is scheduled to gather for a practice today. At that point, memories of the Olympics, be they golden or ghastly, will have to be put aside as the 2013-14 stretch drive begins.
“You have to put it behind you and [deal with] the task at hand,” Bylsma said. “Coming back here and playing for the Penguins.”
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.