The US Olympic hockey team defeated Russia 3-2 in a thrilling shootout match. The Russian team proved that it is putting an end to its dramatic hockey decline.
For a few breathless minutes Saturday afternoon, Sochi Olympic Park kept time with T.J. Oshie. Again and again, the American shootout specialist came at Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovski, and again and again the Olympic Park tensed with anticipation.
Cheers rang from the medals plaza to the Bolshoy Ice Dome when Bobrovski managed to make a save, keeping his team alive until, at last, Oshie scored without Russian reply and all of Russia seemed to lapse into an audible groan.
After a 2-2 tie, the Americans had won the shootout skills competition to take full points in the preliminary group match. But as hard as it might be to convince Russians of it, Russia had already won.
To hear the American version of the afternoon, this has been all about the echoes of 1980 and the Russians trying to exact some measure of revenge for the "Miracle on Ice."
Russian hockey, far more successful than American hockey over the past half century, has never been defined by one loss, however momentous that loss was. Russians might remind you that they won eight ice hockey gold medals during the 10 Olympics from 1956 to 1992. That tends to ease the pain.
No, the significance of Saturday afternoon in Sochi was something far more important than Cold War history or the geopolitics of President Vladimir Putin's pre-match visit to USA House, the headquarters of Team USA here in Sochi.
It was a measuring stick.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia's hockey team has been in dramatic decline, following a descending line from gold in 1992 as the Unified Team to seventh place in Vancouver. Russian hockey is not what it once was and has not been for some time.
In a sign of how greatly the hockey world has shifted beneath the Russians, the US was in many quarters seen as the favorite heading into Saturday's game. Russia's debacle in Vancouver had ended with a 7-3 thrashing at the hands of the host Canadians. On that day, Russian hockey had been exposed as everything Soviet hockey was not: selfish, showboating, undisciplined, and mentally fragile. The Big Red Machine had collapsed into a hundred shiny parts.
Saturday was their first Olympic test since that humiliating day. Would the Russians deign to get their noses dirty and defend? Would they play as a team or a collection of headstrong all-stars? Were the Russian people's gold medal dreams a case of national self-delusion?
On Saturday, the indications were all good. USA is not the best team in the tournament, that would unquestionably be Canada. But USA is good enough to win gold, and the Russians played them even the whole way.
It was never a question of whether the Russians had the talent to do it. By some measures, the Russians are the more talented team. The question is whether they had the will to do it. During the past two decades, Russian hockey medal hopes have been dashed by the very stars supposed to take the nation to glory. The path to a gold medal is not a runway in Milan. Often, the prettier you play, the more vulnerable you become.
Undoubtedly, the 2014 Olympic champion will at some point have to win a game ugly. Before Saturday, there were legitimate doubts about whether Russia could do that. The doubts certainly are not all dispelled, but the Russians did everything right Saturday.
A high-octane American attack that scored seven against Slovakia Thursday was held without an even-strength goal – both US goals came on the power play. And Russian goalie Bobrovski was never asked to make spectacular saves. The Russians were organized, and even when they fell behind, 2-1 in the third period, they never panicked – never abandoned solid, fundamental hockey. Get the puck deep, get in on the forecheck, finish your checks.
They sound like clichés until you see what happens when they are not followed. It looks a lot like a 7-3 shellacking in Vancouver.
On Saturday, the Russians looked stone-cold even with the US. Yes, each team had different strengths and weaknesses. The US lacked the skill of Russia's top two forward lines. Russia lacked the forward and defensive depth of the Americans. But on balance, it was a wash, and the 2-2 score seemed just about right.
In an Olympics that has had hints of Cold War undertones between the US and Russia, the atmosphere, too, was Olympic in the best sense. Not a single boo for the Americans. No trace of lingering ill will. Just a passion for the sport that, for the Olympics, seems just about perfect.
And though the Russians in Olympic Park might not have gone home winners Saturday night, they will go home with greater confidence that, when the games actually matter, their team will be ready.