GANGNEUNG, South Korea — It was a game for Cold War nostalgia and present-day geopolitical angst, for feisty, post-whistle scraps in the corners and for cheap jokes on Twitter. It was a game drenched in history at the start and simmering with ill feeling at the end. It was a game for wild flag-waving and raucous chanting.
It was even a game for competitive hockey, even if the scoreboard suggested a beatdown. The American men were fast, physical and relentless. They outshot the Olympic athletes from Russia 29-26. But they are a band of college kids, minor-leaguers and former NHL players. They were playing KHL veterans and former NHL stars. The difference in skill — passing, stick-handling, finishing — was what the scoreboard showed.
The team of Russians outclassed the United States 4-0 on Saturday at Gangneung Hockey Center in the group stage of the Olympic hockey tournament.
But what the Americans lack in talent, they make up for in backbone. In the final seconds, Russian coach Oleg Zinarok reinserted his first line, providing former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuck a chance at a hat trick. Asked later if he was upset at the tactic, U.S. coach Tony Donato said sternly, "Yes."
In the moment, American forward Jordan Greenway, who plays at Boston University, ended up in another tussle, the last of a night-long series.
"We didn’t get the win, but we wanted to send a message that we’re not going to just back down because we’re down, 4-0," Greenway said. "We’re still here to do big things, and we’re not just going to fall over."
No matter what is going on in the world, hockey games between Americans and Russians carry special meaning. Granato — who played 13 years in the NHL and has been a head coach and an assistant in the league — said Saturday’s game had the pace and the intensity of a Stanley Cup playoff game. There is the 1980 "Miracle on Ice," of course, but Russians have not forgotten the last Olympics in Sochi, Russia, when the United States deprived Russia of a medal by winning an eight-round shootout in which NHLer T.J. Oshie scored on four of his six chances.
"No anger," Kovalchuk said to a pack of American reporters. "It’s sports. It’s emotion. After the last game in Sochi, I think you guys are still showing Oshie scoring those shootouts. Hopefully, we’re going to change that now."
The loss dropped the United States to 1-2 in pool play, which forces it to win an elimination game to make the quarterfinals of a 12-team field. The path to a medal is long, and it likely will go through the Russians, who reasserted themselves as the prohibitive favorites. After Saturday night, the Americans would prefer it that way.
"I’d like to play this team again sometime," said forward Ryan Donato, who plays at Harvard. "I think they respect how hard we played against them. I think they realize they were in a good fight out there."
The problem is the United States has not shown it has the personnel to bury scoring chances. It can hang with the Russians physically, but the scoreboard is another matter. Still, the Americans’ confidence has not waned.
"I don’t see any reason why we’re not in the gold-medal game," Greenway said.
Given the Americans’ performance through three games in the tournament, the comment pleaded for clarification.
"In the gold-medal game," Greenway said. "That’s what I said."