GANGNEUNG, South Korea – With the NHL sitting out the Pyeongchang Olympics, the men's hockey tournament took on a nostalgic tone. Saturday's game between the U.S. and Russia wasn't exactly 1980 all over again, but the atmosphere at Gangneung Hockey Centre sure felt like it.
Hundreds of Russian fans sang songs and waved flags. Americans in Uncle Sam hats, with stars and stripes painted on their faces, met every cheer of "Ro-si-ya!" with a hearty "USA! USA!" That crackling atmosphere spread to the ice, where decades-old animosity spilled out in a rough, rousing game.
The Olympic Athletes from Russia won 4-0, snatching the bye to the quarterfinal round out of the Americans' hands. In an echo of the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the U.S. sent a team of scrappy unknowns to these Olympics, while the Russian roster boasted genuine star power. This time, though, the outcome was a letdown for the Americans.
Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored 417 goals in the NHL, and former Los Angeles Kings prospect Nikolai Prokhorkin supplied the offense. Prokhorkin scored at 7 minutes, 21 seconds of the first period and 2:14 of the second. Kovalchuk put the game out of reach with his two scores, the first with 0.2 seconds left in the second period.
The U.S., which entered the game as the top team in Group B, will have to play in the qualification round Tuesday, with its opponent determined when pool play concludes Sunday.
"We knew coming in how skilled they are," U.S. coach Tony Granato said. "Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk are two of the best players in the world. I thought we skated with them. I thought we battled for every inch of ice out there and played as hard as we could.
"I don't think we got any breaks. They made the most of their chances. They scored some timely goals, and that's why they're a great team. But I thought punch for punch, we stayed with them."
That was an apt choice of words. Shoving matches and scrums broke out frequently during the game, as did multilingual trash-talking. Early in the first period, Wild prospect Jordan Greenway and Russian forward Alexander Barbanov locked up and wrestled in front of the Russian bench, like two stubborn bulls.
The bigger Russians made it tough on the U.S. with their constant pounding. The Americans held a 29-26 advantage in shots on goal, but the better chances were created by the Russians with their superior speed and crafty stickwork.
The best U.S. opportunities came when Ryan Donato banged a shot off the crossbar in the first period, and when Brian Gionta got a breakaway but could not get a shot off.
"It's really special to play against the Americans," Kovalchuk said. "They always play tough. No anger. It's just sport. It's emotions."
Well, maybe a little anger. After the game, Granato did not shake hands with Russian coach Oleg Znarok. Granato was upset that Russia, which got a power play with 2:07 remaining, put its top unit on the ice when it was up by four goals.
The U.S. has two days to solve its offensive woes after managing only four goals in three games in group play. Greenway said the team is disappointed in the loss, but not disheartened.
"We'll do whatever it takes to get the next one," he said. "We can still do a lot of good things in this tournament."