GANGNEUNG, South Korea — They came in wearing USA hockey jerseys and cowboy hats and, over in one corner, a full Superman outfit. One man had a cap that was in the shape of a bald eagle and there was a plethora of NHL sweaters: New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, the Minnesota Wild and the Vancouver Canucks (presumably, that fan was lost). The chants of “U-S-A” were long and loud and constant.
On the other side, there were Russian jerseys, Soviet jerseys and at least one sweater from a team in the Kontinental Hockey League. Two women had gray “Olympic Athlete from Russia” jackets, a group unfurled an “Olympic Fans of Russia” banner and a graybeard wrapped himself in the hammer-and-sickle flag. One taller gentleman wore a trucker’s hat that said, “RUSSIA IS ALL U NEED.” “RUSS-EE-UH, RUSS-EE-UH,” they all shouted, over and over and over.
So, absolutely, the fans were as expected on Saturday. Brash. Chippy. Frantic. It was Team USA against the Russians, and, in the stands, it felt like it.
On the ice? Less so. And not just because (the Olympic Athletes from) Russia ripped through the Americans for much of the night, outskating, outworking and, ultimately, outscoring them handily, 4-0, in the final Winter Games group-stage game for both teams.
No, this was something else. This wasn’t your father’s USA-Russia game (a bunch of plucky upstarts against the Soviet dynasty) and it wasn’t even your older brother’s USA-Russia clash, which had craftsmen like T.J. Oshie beating Sergei Bobrovsky four times in the 2014 Sochi Olympics shootout that was as captivating as it was dramatic.
This game — and this entire Olympic men’s hockey tournament, unfortunately — has the feel of something in-between, a competition stuck in the morass between a full-blooded international spectacle of talent and a celebration of youthful stars-to-come.
That is the result, of course, of the NHL’s decision to keep its players home from the Olympics this time around, a choice that has robbed the Games of a showpiece event and left many teams, particularly the American one, without an identity (the sporting kind, not the let’s-beat-Russia kind).
The U.S. team isn’t a band of college kids and it isn’t a squad of pros. Instead, it’s a mish-mash of journeymen, minor-leaguers, ex-NHL players and a handful of soon-to-be pros. If that doesn’t sound like a particularly intimidating blend, that’s because it really isn’t.
Russia’s team similarly is missing its top NHL players, yet the gap in talent was stark all the same. Could the Russians have been crisper? For sure. But they still dominated the flow of the game, controlling the tempo throughout and reveling in it.
“They still show highlights of Oshie [in Russia],” OAR forward and former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk said afterward. “Hopefully we can change that.”
They just might. Certainly, the Americans weren’t fast enough to keep up Saturday, and even when the Russians were playing a man down, they could forecheck and pressure the puck, then catch up to the play easily as the U.S. moved up ice. They were never hurried, never stressed.
Nikolai Prokhorkin scored two goals and was all over the ice, scrapping and shoving and battling with anyone in a white jersey nearby. When he and Chris Bourque were sent to the box for roughing after a particularly heated scrap in front of the net, the Russians fans roared and Prokhorkin had a bigger grin than after his second goal.
Prokhorkin did his biggest damage early, opening the scoring by finishing off a beautiful pass-pass-shoot sequence about 7 minutes into the game, then adding another early in the second period. The Russians were in full control at that point, but sealed up the game by scoring two goals within 28.2 seconds: first, Kovalchuk ripped a slapshot past Ryan Zapolski with 0.2 seconds left in the second period — a crushing end to a period in which the Americans didn’t play badly — before finishing a breakaway just moments into the final period.
How did Kovalchuk get free? Two Americans ran into each other. “They were very opportunistic,” U.S. coach Tony Granato said, which was a kind way of putting it.
The Americans were not. They could say they were unlucky once — Ryan Donato had a shot hit the crossbar — but were otherwise wasteful. Brian Gionta beat the Russian goalkeeper with a deke but lost control of the puck. Broc Little missed a great opportunity in front of goal. The Americans outshot the Russians 29-26, but weren’t close in quality chances.
By the final seconds, Russian fans were dancing and Granato was fuming about the Russians keeping their best players on the ice near the end. Even the American spectators had little choice but to settle down. Their team — this strange mix of a team — had been soundly beaten.
“There was a lot of energy — it was fun to be a part of,” Gionta said. “But then, obviously, it was disappointing once the game started.”