Blake Wheeler #28 congratulates teammate Jonathan Quick #32 after the U.S. defeated Russia 3-2 during the men's ice hockey preliminary round Group A game at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Bolshoy Ice Dome on Feb. 15, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
They showed stirrings of Olympic ardor in a game they once had to call a miracle.
And the latest edition of the U.S. men's ice hockey team proved it needed far less luck than its predecessors in pulling passed a formidable team from Russia.
The U.S. entered its second preliminary-round game of the Sochi Games looking to deconstruct the offensive drive of its Russian rivals. Instead, Team USA showcased its own skill and resolve by defeating the host nation, 3-2, in a game that stretched past overtime and into an extended shootout Saturday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
“It was a great game all around in an unbelievable setting and atmosphere,” said U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma. “This is our second game, and while it’s a big win for our team, we have to keep going forward.”
Both the U.S. and Russia are in pursuit of a tournament title that has long evaded them.
The U.S. made gains in an impressive shootout display at the hands of T.J. Oshie, who was sent to the ice six of eight times in the overtime shootout. The St. Louis Blues forward – who collected more than 75,000 new followers on Twitter in the wake of marquee game against Russia – connected four shots, including the game-winning goal against Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
"With the quality moves he had, even when he did miss, we were going to ride him out," said Bylsma.
Forwards Cam Fowler and Joe Pavelski netted two goals for the U.S. in regulation time, while netminder Jonathan Quick made 29 saves and stopped five shots in the shootout.
Asked for his thoughts in potentially playing Russia in a medal final, Oshie said, "We are not thinking about that. We just wanted to get the win tonight to put us in a good position. We still have a long way to go."
To date, the U.S. holds two gold medals in men's hockey at the Winter Games. The first came at the Squaw Valley 1960 Olympic Winter Games. The second came in a hard-fought battle at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. – the Miracle on Ice.
En route to gold in 1980, a U.S. group of amateur and collegiate hockey players banded in victory against a formidable team representing the former Soviet Union.
"But that's 34 years ago," said center David Backes after a practice session Friday. "We've got a crew that would love to write our own chapter and maybe give the generation of the kids that's playing hockey today something else to look forward to or strive to."
And the team did just that, playing before a raucous crowd of Russian supporters boasting flags of a different kind of red, white and blue.
For the Team USA fan who caught the puck that flew over the glass in the first period, the match-up against Russia, he said, was better than any championship game he's experienced back home.
“This is the most incredible game I've ever been to,” said Kris Swarthout. “The adrenaline is flowing through my whole body.”
Of the rumbling Russian supporters, he added, “You can tell that Russia has had 34 years of practice.”
The U.S. team is no stranger to host nation rivals. At the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Team USA pulled Canada all the way to overtime in the gold-medal game before Canadian forward Sidney Crosby scored the game-winning goal.
In Sochi on Saturday, Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk scored two goals and contributed another goal in the shootout before 11,678 spectators and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"The U.S. team is a good team, a good test for us,” Datsyuk said. “Our team played great tonight, but our result was not good."
Russia has not won hockey gold at the Winter Games since a unified team from the dissolved Soviet Union took the title in 1992. In its Soviet days, the nation had captured seven gold medals in nine Winter Games between 1956 and 1991.
When asked for his thoughts on the pressure Russia may be facing at these Games, Bylsma said he respected and empathized with the pressure to win on home soil. But, he added, Russia is not alone.
Said Bylsma, “I felt every bit of that pressure.”