With Putin in stands, controversy on ice, US emerges with hockey victory over Russia

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 15, 2014 

— With an amped-up, decidedly pro-Russian crowd in the stands and President Vladimir Putin seated in a box, Russia and the United States met Saturday at the 2014 Winter Olympics in a preliminary-round hockey game.

The Cold War has long ended, but it was hard to tell in a sold-out Bolshoy Ice Dome, as many of the 11,678 noisy fans arrived decked out in Russian red hockey jerseys — some of them with old-school Soviet Union jerseys with “CCCP” emblazoned on them.

They cheered loudly from the moment that high-scoring forwards Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and former NHL player Ilya Kovalchuk stepped on the ice. The stars carried the hopes of a nation.

The cheering ended after the U.S. won a 3-2 overtime victory in a briskly-paced game that featured an unusual strategy and a dose of political carping and one-upsmanship reminiscent of the days of Kennedy, Khrushchev and Sputnik.

Russian defenseman Fodor Tyutin appeared to score a regulation time go-ahead goal past U.S. goaltender Jonathan Quick, a member of the Los Angeles Kings. But the goal was disallowed because part of Quick’s net was off its moorings.

Russian fans jeered. Some Russian government officials sneered and hit social media with claims of conspiracy.

The Washington Post reported that Alexi Pushkov, head of the Russian Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, suggested skullduggery behind the call because the official who made it, Brad Meir, is American.

“How can a referee from the U.S.A. judge the U.S. team?!” Pushkov tweeted in Russian, according to The Post. “The puck was in the goal. What an abomination! Cheating in front of the whole world!! Disgusting.”

Michael McFaul, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Russia, tweeted that “Referees on ice called it a goal. International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) officials watched video replay and nullified goal.”

The IIHF joined the fray, issuing a statement saying that “upon reviewing the goal, the net had clearly been displaced prior to the puck going into the net.”

“The IIHF referee supervisor Konstantin Komissarov confirmed that the ruling made by referees Brad Meir and Markus Vinneborg was the correct call and that the proper procedure had been followed with regards to the video review.”

Saturday’s game was only a preliminary round battle, but that didn’t stop President Barack Obama from joining the hockey tweet parade.

“Congrats to T.J. Oshie and the U.S. men’s hockey team on a huge win!” the White House tweet said. “Never stop believing in miracles. #GoTeamUSA – bo.”

The game ended 2-2 after 60 minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime, then it went to a shootout, a session in which each team sends individual players to take penalty shots on the opposing goaltender.

U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma employed a unique strategy in the eight-round shootout — using Oshie, a forward for the St. Louis Blues, as often as often as possible to take the U.S. shots.

Oshie, one of the NHL’s most effective shootout snipers, responded by scoring four times in the shootout, including the decisive goal past Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

“My hands are a little tingling, my feet are a little tingling,” Oshie said of the shootout. “It was pretty nerve-racking there.”

While Oshie may have been nervous, Bylsma showed nerve by using Oshie over and over again. In the NHL, players can only take one turn in a shootout. International rules allow an individual player to be used repeatedly.

Even with the liberal rule, Bylsma had plenty of offensive firepower on his bench with the likes of Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, Toronto Maple Leafs star Phil Kessel and Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise.

“T.J. has been exceptional on the shootout this year and throughout his career,” said Bylsma, coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. “Once we got to the fourth shooter, and just the quality moves he had even when he did miss, we were going to ride him out.”

Oshie apparently didn’t know that Bylsma was going to make him the team’s singular designated gunner. After one miss, Oshie skated to the end of the U.S. team’s bench, apparently thinking he was done.

“I don’t think T.J. expects to be called every time, we have other capable and very good shooters,” the coach said. “T.J. went down to the other end of the bench and I almost lost him, and I was looking for him up and down the bench to call him again and he showed up at the opposite end with the defensemen. He eventually showed himself and came through for us with a couple of great goals.”

The T.J. Oshie show provided a climactic ending to an Olympic preliminary round hockey game that had a little bit of everything. From the start the atmosphere in the Bolshoy Ice Dome signaled that the game wouldn’t be routine.

Cam Fowler, a defenseman for the Anaheim Ducks, and Joe Pavelski, a center for the San Jose Sharks, scored for the United States in regulation time. Russian team captain Pavel Datsyuk, a forward for the Detroit Red Wings, scored twice in the regulation frame and once during the shootout.

The U.S. had a chance to put the game away when Patrick Kane, a Chicago Blackhawks forward, broke past the Russian defense alone towards Bobrovsky, the netminder for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Bobrovsky, who won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie last season, rejected Kane’s shot.

A handful of Americans were at Bolshoy, too, decked out in their USA sweaters. Some donned replica jerseys from the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic team. Whenever Americans tried to get a chant of “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” rolling, they were drowned out by a thunderous chorus of “Rush-E-Ya! Rush-E-Ya!”

It was nationalism on parade, but all in good fun to Benjamin Brueshoff, 30, of Bloomington, Minn.

“This is definitely a gold medal game without the gold medal,” Brueshoff said after the game’s second period. “We’re outnumbered 100 to 1. It’s fun being the underdog, it’s fun being in Russia.”

Tony Carlson, a season ticket holder of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, marveled at the crowd’s energy and lung capacity.

“This crowd is much more energetic,” said Carlson, a St. Louis Park, Minn., resident. “We went to the U.S.-Slovakia game and there were empty seats. Today, this place is packed and the stadium is electric.”

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