U.S. past ‘miracle’ stage in Olympic hockey (except vs. Canada)

Photo credit: AP

SOCHI, Russia – This seems to be the Olympics when everyone around United States hockey officially got sick of the Miracle on Ice. Well, it was inevitable. With the Olympics being in Russia, with famed Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak (who was pulled in the Miracle) lighting the torch, with my generation reaching the age of cloying nostalgia and with the U.S. men’s team looking for its first Olympics hockey gold since that 1980 team, everything pointed to overkill.*

*Which I happily participated in.

Thing is, hockey in America is nothing like it was in 1980. This was the point the U.S. hockey team kept hammering. Everything has changed. Now, professional hockey players are at the Olympic. Now, the U.S. team has some of the best players in the world. Now, the U.S. team has speed and size and depth that is the envy of almost every hockey-playing country in the world. When the U.S. team played Russia this time around, it was the Americans who were favored, and the Americans who played the villains when they got a favorable call and won in a gritty shootout.

So, yes, everybody was ready to move on from the constant reminders about a bunch of college hockey players who won a gold medal 34 years ago.

Trouble is, to get people to stop talking about the Miracle on Ice, you have to stop losing one-goal games to Canada when it matters most.

VIDEO: Highlights from Canada’s 1-0 win

The U.S. did lose another one-goal game to Canada in an Olympic semifinal Friday … this after the U.S. women one day earlier lost a crushing one-goal game to Canada in the gold medal game … this after the U.S. men lost a crushing one-goal game to Canada in the gold medal game in Vancouver, one of the most famous hockey games ever played.

To be fair, the United States’ 1-0 loss to Canada was different from the others. It felt cleaner and did not leave much room for regret. That’s because the Canadians pretty thoroughly outplayed the Americans. Was it not for some head-stand saves from Jonathan Quick – “our best player tonight,”  U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said – the score easily could have been 3-0 or 4-0.

Meanwhile the “0” on the American end of the score was more or less locked in. It is hard to imagine a team playing more suffocating defense than Canada played Friday. The U.S. power play was rendered all but useless. And other than a couple of moderate chances early and Paul Stansny’s point-blank shots in front in the second period, the U.S. rarely even threatened to score.

VIDEO: U.S. can’t find an empty net in final minute

The game was played at a high level—the speed on the ice was mesmerizing — and it was entertaining in its own way. But it really was quite a let-down from the famous gold medal game of four years ago. Well, for one thing that was a gold-medal match, while this was a semifinal just to see who would play Sweden for gold. That was a quirk in the seeding, and it definitely altered some of the emotion.*

Photo credit: AP

Then there was the quiet. Here you had the two best hockey teams on earth – two of the most talented hockey teams ever put together – and it was so eerily quiet in the Bolshoy Ice Palace. Every now and again, a hearty soul would try to start up a U-S-A chant or beg the Canadians to finish one of their numerous goal-scoring chances and then it would dissolve into stillness.

Much of the time, the arena was quiet enough to read bedtime stories aloud.

So strange … but then maybe not. No event at these Olympics brought so much pain to the host country as hockey. The Russian hockey team lost to the U.S. in the aforementioned shootout that was, for many Americans, the emotional peak of these Olympics and was for Russian fans the very symbol of fraud. A goal-ahead goal by the Russians was nullified because the cage of the net was slightly off its mooring. Russians who even conceded the point that the net WAS off still believed that U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick had been the one to knock it off. Angry fans demonstrated in Moscow. Television networks replayed the disallowed goal again and again.

Then, more disconcerting, the Russian team disappeared in a 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Finland that featured no controversy and also no life from a gifted collection of Russian players who never quite came together.

So, it is logical that there simply wasn’t much enthusiasm left for the sport. Tack on the Russians’ famous reticence – something that various non-Russian figure skaters noticed during their soundless programs – and what you had was a striking lack of energy and volume. We grow so used to the biggest sporting events being loud and the tension being almost tangible.

But Friday, early in the second period, Canada’s Jay Bouwmeester – a tough defenseman not necessarily known for his playmaking abilities – slapped a pass that Jamie Benn deflected over Quick to give Canada that 1-0 lead. And then the rest of the game just kind of melted away almost unnoticed. Those sounds you associate with a close and important hockey game – the roars for developing chances, the groans when shots slip wide, the gasps when the winning team narrowly escapes – were largely nonexistent. It was a bit like being in a Vegas casino with no clocks. Time just gushes away.

VIDEO: Jamie Benn’s shot the only goal

In any case, the U.S. never came especially close to tying the game, and Canada came very close to extending the lead and it was clear, on this day anyway, that there’s still a gap between Canadian and American hockey. Maybe this is as it should be considering how intently Canadian life revolves around the sport (some 80 percent of Canada watched at least part of the 2010 gold medal game).

But it is a blow for a United States still trying to move past the Miracle on Ice. Bylsma made the point after the game that U.S. hockey is at a place now where it hardly needs a miracle to win a gold medal. He’s right, of course. All the U.S. really needs is a couple more goals against Canada. Thing is, that’s the proving to be about as elusive as miracles.

NHL on NBCSN: Red Wings face Lightning in ’15 playoff rematch

Steven Stamkos, Henrik Zetterberg
AP Photo

NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2015-16 campaign tonight when the Detroit Red Wings host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can stream the game online here.

The Lightning made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, but their journey almost ended in the first round at the hands of the Red Wings. Detroit shutout Tampa Bay twice in that series and the two squads were locked in a scoreless tie until the third period of Game 7.

Despite the fact that the Red Wings were a mere hair away from advancing instead of Tampa Bay, the Lightning are often mentioned as serious Cup contenders while Detroit is typically regarded as a good, but not amazing team. However, that gap isn’t entirely unjustified.

After all, Tampa Bay has a very effective core of forwards that features Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat. If the highly regarded Jonathan Drouin, 20, is able to build off of his strong start to the 2015-16 campaign then the Lightning’s offense could be even more dangerous this season.

Detroit certainly has some offensive star power too in Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, but the duo is 35 and 37 years old respectively. On top of that, injuries have been a recurring issue for Datsyuk, who isn’t expected to make his season debut until November after undergoing ankle surgery.

As good as those two forwards still are, the Red Wings have to hope that their younger players will be able to lead the charge sooner rather than later. The good news is that 19-year-old Dylan Larkin‘s campaign is off to a strong start with three points in two games while 23-year-old Teemu Pulkkinen scored twice on Saturday.

The Red Wings have opened the season with back-to-back wins against Toronto and Carolina, but tonight’s game represents their biggest test to date. Meanwhile, the Lightning are similarly undefeated after three games, but this contest will be particularly trying for them given that it’s their third game in four days.

PHT Morning Skate: Columnist argues McDavid’s already NHL’s most important player

Connor McDavid
AP Photo

PHT’s Morning Skate takes a look around the world of hockey to see what’s happening and what we’ll be talking about around the NHL world and beyond.

Although Connor McDavid‘s NHL career has only just gotten started, is he already the league’s most important player? (Sportsnet)

While we’re on the subject of McDavid, what should we expect from him for the remainder of his rookie campaign? (NHL Numbers)

Jack Jablonski was paralyzed on Dec. 30, 2011 at the age of 16 while playing high school hockey, but that hasn’t ended his pursuit of a career in hockey. He’s spent the last two years hosting a weekly hockey-talk radio program and has now joined the Los Angeles Kings as a communications intern. (Orange County Register)

Arizona State has earned its first NCAA victory. (Arizona Republic)

The 2015 Calder Cup champion Manchester Monarchs got their rings. (LA Kings Insider)

The Anaheim Ducks and the Make-A-Wish Foundation gave 13-year-old Kai Quinonez, who was diagnosed with aplastic anemia four years ago, a tremendous experience. (Orange County Register)