SOCHI, RUSSIA – A lone voice cried out from the crowd with five minutes left and the U.S. men’s hockey team helplessly pressing to generate scoring chances against Canada.
“I believe in miracles,” the man yelled.
With all due respect to 1980 and that scrappy bunch of youngsters, this collection of American hockey talent didn’t need a miracle Friday night. No, Team USA needed something else. Let’s start with more speed and aggressiveness, the kind of go-for-broke mentality the players carried onto the ice against Russia a week ago.
Strangely, that air of invincibility vanished in a game that the Americans viewed as their chance at redemption after suffering heartbreak four years ago.
Instead, their uber-skilled rivals north of the border took the fight to Team USA all game and rode one goal and suffocating defense to a 1-0 victory and a spot in the gold medal game in the Olympic hockey tournament.
Canada will attempt to defend its Olympic title against Sweden on Sunday. The U.S. will try to salvage something from this trip against Finland in Saturday’s bronze medal game.
The dejected U.S. contingent promised to soldier on and fight hard for that medal. But they didn’t fly 6,000 miles for bronze, not after winning silver in 2010 and entering this tournament with a gold-or-bust mantra. Their body language and short answers afterward revealed a deep disappointment that will stick with them for some time.
“I think all of us thought we’d be in a different situation,” forward Patrick Kane said. “Obviously it wasn’t good enough to win the game so it’s tough right now.”
They wore the underdog label proudly in Vancouver in 2010. An overtime loss to Canada and a silver medal, though disappointing at the time, created a sense of optimism that a gold medal in these Games seemed like a realistic expectation.
They certainly looked the part in advancing to the semifinals. They led the tournament in scoring and settled into their roles nicely and had the look of a team that was steadily building momentum to something special. They looked reactive Friday.
Canada played at warp speed to keep the U.S. pinned in its own end for long stretches, unable to dictate the game’s tempo.
The U.S. had some scoring chances along the way, but the Canadians made Jamie Benn’s goal and Carey Price’s 31 saves stand up because they kept their foot on the gas the entire game.
“They came at us with 20 guys, they came at us with speed, they came at us for 60 minutes,” U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said. “That was as fast a game that I’ve ever been a part of. It was up and down the ice. We weren’t able to counter that or match that as much we would like.”
It’s not that they weren’t capable of it. This U.S. team can play fast, too. But the Canadians reached deep and found a gear that the U.S. — for whatever reason — couldn’t duplicate. That left players perplexed because this was not the occasion to leave anything on the table.
“We had an awesome opportunity,” forward David Backes said. “I don’t think we quite laid it all on the line the way we needed to in order to win. A 1-0 game in the semifinal against your rival country, that’s a sour taste.”
Credit where credit is due: The Canadians are the best team assembled in the world, so deep in talent that they’re playing for gold and Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews still have not scored goals in this tournament. Canada put the U.S. on the defensive by turning the game into a track meet.
“They played their butts off,” Backes said. “We played pretty hard, but another notch would have done us a lot of good.”
The U.S. is 3-12-3 against Canada in the Olympics. The Americans lost in overtime in the championship game in Vancouver and now must swallow another one-goal loss. U.S. captain Zach Parise shot down the notion that their rivals have become a mental roadblock.
“We lost 1-0,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a mental block at all.”
Regardless, the U.S. now must wait for more years to try to win its first gold medal since 1980, which means more reminders of Miracle on Ice, a narrative that has grown tiresome to the current group wearing red, white and blue.
“Thirty-four years ago, it was a miracle,” Bylsma said. “It’s not a miracle for us to think about winning a gold medal. The references are a little old. They’re not applicable.”
He’s right. The U.S. didn’t need a miracle Friday. It just needed to play a lot better.