SOCHI – On the first day of the rest of his life, T. J. Oshie, shootout god, had gained some 50,000 Twitter followers and at least one nickname:
“Now he can talk about his (goals) for the next 30 years,” defenseman Ryan Suter said of Oshie, a comment that also served as a sly dig at the man who scored the game winner in the 1980 Miracle against the Soviet Union and has been dining out on it ever since. “We’ve been giving (T.J.) a hard time in the room. I even told my Dad that. (Bob Suter played on the 1980 Olympic team.) He said that maybe now we can talk about something else for a while.”
Because jibes are the currency of the dressing room, Oshie is now the richest man in Sochi - an American hockey oligarch. He heard the chirping the second he walked into the room after the Russian game on Saturday because, really, no good deed should go unpunished. There are other nicknames floating around – Team USA captain Zach Parise apparently has a beauty – but Oshie is trying to squash them before they leak. Or worse, trend.
“More Twitter followers, that’s about it,” Oshie said when asked about how his life had changed after Team USA’s 5-1 victory over Slovenia on Sunday, a win that gave the Americans a direct berth into the quarterfinals on Wednesday. “I’m still the same guy, the same hockey player, just out here having fun. My teammates joke about it a little bit. I’m trying to get them to change their focus to someone else so I’m not saying (the nicknames). Maybe they’ll start giving Phil (Kessel) a hard time.”
Oshie almost always has been the supporting actor-type – to Jonathan Toews at the University of North Dakota, to David Backes and others on the St. Louis Blues – but now he is above the marquee, an overnight sensation. After his star turn against Russia, he went down for a nice chat at NBC and met Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, whom he insists on calling “Mr. Collinsworth.” Oshie returned to his room at the Olympic village around 10:15, talked with family back in the United States, and spoke with his fiancé, Lauren Cosgrove, who is expecting their child. He tried to sleep but tossed and turned, finally turning on some music. When he checked his phone a final time, it was after midnight.
“I didn’t stop shaking (until) I got to the rink,” Oshie said. “I didn’t want this to be something that carried over to our game. I did my pregame routine, took my mind off it, and the boys responded pretty well.”
“I went to talk to Oshie after the (Russia) game last night and I jokingly said you’re going to have to play again tomorrow,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “I thought he was a big spark for us. In the lull in the second period, he goes to the net and draws a penalty and then his line” – Oshie, Blake Wheeler and Paul Stastny – “comes out and that was really the best shift of the game. His speed and skill was all there. We kinda kept pushing it with that line, T.J. in particular … That was a good response for him.”
Team USA needed a little nudge against everybody’s second favorite team in Sochi. Slovenia is a proud country in the heart of Europe, if not exactly at the epicenter of the Olympic hockey tournament. But give it credit. Slovenia extended Russia and then stunned Slovakia, a victory that wasn’t exactly a Jamaican bobsled gold medal, but it did provide an opening for Anze Kopitar, the estimable Los Angeles Kings center and the only Slovenian in the NHL, to suggest that people now might know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia.
(Nice to know that Kopitar, an incurable optimist who was raised in a town on the Austrian border and who moved to Sweden to further his hockey career when he was 16, has faith in American geography students. Unfortunately, he had to sit out the third period on Sunday because of what his father Matjaz, the Slovenian coach, said were stomach problems.)
There are seven rinks in that land of two million people, which seems excessive considering that there are just 148 registered players. In an interview with The New York Times earlier this month, Kopitar said the pool of players who are capable of competing at a high level was around 40. This obviously is the shallow end of the hockey pool, although it probably puts Slovenia, which was part of Yugoslavia until 1991, on a par with Minneapolis-St. Paul and their suburbs if the Twin Cities ever choose to separate.
But the Slovenians looked terrific in Sochi … and that’s just their uniforms. The national colors are blue, white and red, but with a nudge from the national tourism board, they are skating in blue and Oregon Ducks green with three white stars and a representation of the mountains at the bottom of the jerseys. They have quick and industrious forwards, hopeless defensemen and no fear, playing an NHL style game that is far more aggressive than the circumspection displayed by teams from many European nations even if, as their coach said, “Our teeth were not sharp enough to be competitive with the USA.”
Rather than going into a 1-4 cocoon and trying to bleed the game, they took the play right to Team USA. Twenty-five minutes into the somnolent match at Shayba Arena, Slovenia was outshooting the Americans, 9-8, before a strong shift by Oshie seemed to turn the game.
With Ryan Miller subbing for Jonathan Quick in goal, the USA’s 5-1 win was the least impressive of its three round-robin victories. Given the roiling emotions of the shootout against Russia 24 hours earlier, this could hardly have been different. The point: the American players are not automatons. The letdown was as anticipated as the muddle-headed Russian grousing about Fedor Tyutin’s disallowed goal a day earlier. (International rules are crystalline on the matter. If the net is off its mooring, there is no wiggle room and there is no goal. Now pipe down. Thank you.) After Kessel scored two goals in the first five minutes on his way to a natural hat trick, the Slovenia game was all about the record keeping.
“It’s fortunate we got a couple of great skill plays coming out of the neutral zone,” Bylsma said. “Kessel was able to get two goals and get us that lead. To be able to get up like we did was very big for our team. To look up and see the scoreboard …”
Kessel opened the scoring on the first American shot with a vintage Kessel goal circa 2006, a time when he was widely adjudged as towering a talent as a Sidney Crosby. He pulled out his inside-outside move, undressing defenseman Mitja Robar, who plays for the Penguins. (The Krefeld Penguins of the German Elite League, that is.) Kessel’s dangle lost its effectiveness years ago, and he has been obliged to develop some bite to go with the glitter. Now he is willing bull his way through traffic to the net, netting as many courageous goals as any other elite NHL scorer. (Ask Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara about Kessel’s grit in the 2013 Boston-Toronto playoff series.)
Kessel was parked to the right of 20-year-old Luka Gracnar, 5’10” goalie who plays for Salzburg in the Austrian League, when he picked a Joe Pavelski saucer pass out of the air and tapped it home just 277 seconds into the match. After another tap-in 11 minutes into the second period, a lone gray toque floated to ice at the opposite end of the rink to celebrate the hat trick. Given the cost of official Olympic merchandise, the reluctance to part with any headgear was perfectly understandable.
You can nitpick. Team USA took six minors against Russia and another three against Slovenia, but it yielded only a Pavel Datsyuk power play goal on the weekend. The past might be prologue. Or not. Now come the knockout games. The goal is to turn the page – and that includes on T.J. Oshie’s shootout virtuosity in a prelim match. Not to mention on Mike Eruzione.