SOCHI -- Friday night was a disappointment; this was a disaster.
In the end, the emotional toll of the semifinal loss to Canada was simply too much for the U.S. to overcome. When the lights shined brighter, they shrank into themselves. They came into the medal round brimming with confidence, bolstered by a boatload of goals, but they left it the lone medal-less goat. Against the Finns Saturday night, the U.S. went goalless for the second straight day, shut out 5-0 by Finnish goalie Tuukka Rask.
“[It’s] disappointing, a little embarrassing, too,” U.S. captain Zach Parise said. “With what was on the line the past two days for us not to play well really in either of the games, that’s something that will frustrate all of us for a long time … With a medal on the line, to get blown out 5-0, that’s unacceptable at this point.”
Of course, they probably thought they were ready for this game, to leave Sochi with more to show for their journey than bruises and sprains. But early chances were thwarted by Rask, who was in net after sitting out Finland’s semifinal loss against Sweden with the flu, and after two failed penalty shots from U.S. winger Patrick Kane the frustration levels grew higher and higher.
When the Finns scored two goals 11 seconds apart early in the second period, “a lot of frustration set in on our part -- whether it was feelings from last night, disappointment of being where we were,” Parise said. “Then I think we got frustrated and started trying to beat guys one-on-one, turned the puck over, we took penalties. We just stopped playing that team game that got us to where we are.”
They began playing like a group of ultra-talented players who happened to be on the ice together, not the dominant team that marched through the first four games of the tournament. The forecheck, which had been ferocious through the quarterfinals, became passive, letting the Canadians and Finns have the areas of the ice the Americans once fought hard for. Just a handful of minutes after Saturday’s loss, the U.S. players already looked back with regret.
“I think if we’re honest about these last two games, we had better performances in the tank,” center David Backes said. “That’s I think the disappointing thing. The result … If we played our butts off and were ousted and had better teams against us, I think you can live with that. But when it’s less-than-stellar performances, especially in a tournament like this, where it’s one and done and you’re playing for your country and nothing should be held back, it’s going to be a sour, sour feeling for a while.”
Instead of playing hard to the bitter end, the U.S. let go of the game in the third. They took a string of bad penalties -- Kane for tripping, T.J. Oshie for interference, Ryan Suter for high-sticking, Kane again for slashing -- that led to three power play goals for Finland. By the end, they couldn’t have looked less interested in playing.
An emotional toll can only account for so much. After all, Finland, too, suffered its own heartbreaking loss to its neighbor, Sweden, on Friday. “Our coaching staff was saying the faster you can put that game behind and start preparing for the next one, the better chance we have,” Finland’s Olli Jokinen said. “I think we wanted to win this medal more than they did.”
Well, certainly, one person wanted it most. Teemu Selanne, the 43-year-old Dean of the Sochi hockey tournament, knew coming in that this game would be his last in the Suomi sweater. After six Olympics, and 26 years, he will all but certainly retire after the NHL season.
“To bounce back from that huge disappointment from last night, I’m so proud of my guys,” Selanne said. “We knew we could play our best game of the tournament tonight, and we did.”
He had more than a little to do with the win. In his last (he promises) Olympics, Selanne wrote a perfect swan song for his illustrious international career. Early in the second, he rushed into the offensive zone with room -- there’s always room for the swift-skating Finnish Flash -- and fluttered a backhand that went through Quick. He later added a power play goal to make it 4-0 midway through the third. When the Finns went on one final power play in the closing minutes of the game, Jokinen turned to Selanne and told him to score a third to make it a truly perfect evening.
“We tried to remind [ourselves] that we deserve better than fourth place,” Selanne said. “Twenty-six years ago I played my first national team game, and I’ve been carrying this jersey with a lot of pride and love. Winning this last game like this is a dream come true. I’m so proud of my teammates and what a great ending.”
“It wasn’t hard to get the best out of [yourself] today,” Finnish forward Lauri Korpikoski said. “You play for those guys … Especially Teemu, getting a win in his last game, it was unbelievable.”
Selanne came back to play again for this, the Olympics, he had said before the games. Here, he’d get first-line minutes and be able to play the game he loves the way he wants. In this, his final game in a Finnish sweater, he logged 17:02 in ice time, more than all but one forward on the team. And make no mistake, he’ll take the case up with Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau about his shrinking playing time in the NHL. With the kind of games he’s played here -- he led Finland with four goals in Sochi -- he can still have a reasonable argument, even at 43.
A couple hours before the game Saturday, the Finnish captain convened his team and talked to them about the significance of pulling on the national sweater. He told them to cherish these moments since they come only once every four years and how important it was to walk out of Sochi with a medal. He stressed that you never know when you’ll get this chance again.
Selanne now has four medals, none gold, but all cherished. In his speech, he calmed his team, helped them get over the disappointment of their semifinal loss. In his final day, he was the leader that the team wanted to win for.
In the end, Team USA probably could’ve used someone like that.