February 21, 2014 at 8:20 pm

Americans fire blanks, must settle for shot at hockey bronze

Canada forward Benn Jamie, left, reacts after scoring on USA goaltender Jonathan Quick on Friday in Sochi, Russia. (Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

Sochi, Russia — So often in the big, big hockey games that are decided by one goal, the player most responsible for getting it done is someone from whom performing in the defining moment is least expected.

In what many agreed was among the finest 1-0 games in which they had played, coached or witnessed, the USA lost to Canada on Friday, ending dreams of gold nurtured since Canada won 3-2 in overtime in Vancouver four years go.

If anyone had scanned both lineups before the game to predict the offensive hero of such an affair, few eyes would have landed on veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester.

An enormous man encumbered with enormous expectations since he was drafted in the first round, third overall, by the Panthers a dozen years ago only to scuffle through Florida and disappointing seasons with the Flames before moving to the Blues, it just did not seem to figure.

But when the journeyman stood with the puck at the blue line in the offensive zone about a minute-and-a-half into the second period in a titanic struggle, he saw opportunity where few looking on expected it.

As stalwart USA forward, and Bouwmeester’s teammate in St. Louis, David Backes moved out to meet him, all who watched knew the gutsy, physical forward would lay down his body if necessary to block almost anything Bouwmeester sent toward the net.

But, Bouwmeester saw forward Jamie Benn positioned just to the side of the goal.

And as the big man wound up, instead of the expected straight shot, he diverted ever so slightly to his left and fired toward Benn.

It was a shot pass, and the unexpected hero caused it to arrive with great precision.

In a flash, when there had been no possibility of scoring, Benn tipped it over USA goaltender Jonathan Quick and into the American goal.

Bouwmeester had delivered the puck to Benn and Canada — oh, Canada, a nation that frets games like this as fathers in hospital waiting rooms fret the delivery of twins — to the gold medal game for a consecutive Olympics.

“With all respect, Jay Bouwmeester, he’s a great skater and a good defender, but you don’t expect him to be doing that stuff on the blue line,” said Red Wings and Canadian coach Mike Babcock.

“There were better chances than the goal for both teams. They didn’t go in.

“That one went in,” said Babcock, who has brought Canada to the cusp of winning its first gold medal outside North America since the NHL began playing in the Olympics.

“Jay made a great pass — shot pass — and I found a way to get my stick on it,” Benn said.

Dan Bylsma, the Michigan native and USA coach, thought Backes would get in front of the shot.

“But Jay made a great play, a great play to the side of the net,” Bylsma said. “There wasn’t a chance to block it because it wasn’t a shot.”

In their previous four games, the USA was the fastest team on the ice by a considerable margin. Canada was faster Friday.

“That was a fast game, that was as fast a game as I’ve ever been a part of,” said Bylsma, born and raised in Grand Haven. “Maybe we weren’t able to match that and counter that as much as we would like.

“We all feel disappointment with this game. Maybe the disappointment was that it wasn’t for a gold medal; two great teams in the tournament, a rematch from 2010 and not being able to come up with a victory in this game.”

In their previous four games, the USA seemed to score at will. On Friday, Canada and goaltender Carey Price shut them out.

For deciding to start Price, who never has appeared in a game of such magnitude, either with Canada or the Canadiens, and for many other things, Babcock has been examined, cross-examined and criticized in Canada.

Babcock said it could be no other way.

“I think that’s all part of the process in Canada,” he said. “I think the last time we played in the Olympics we had 27 of 33 million people watching the last game.

“Everybody’s interested, everyone’s vested.

“Before the last Olympics, I had a function to raise money with a bunch of plumbers. They picked the team, they knew everybody. They knew everything about it.

“Why wouldn’t they second-guess what you’re doing, and question what you’re doing?”

Team USA now plays a stubborn defensive team, Finland, for the bronze medal today.

“It’s got to be behind us real quick,” Bylsma said. “We still have much to play for and we’ll deal with that tomorrow.”

For fans of the Red Wings disappointed the USA lost, the consolation prize is substantial.

A team Babcock coaches and that, for a second straight Olympics, Steve Yzerman was in charge of assembling with the help of Ken Holland and others, plays Sweden, for which five Red Wings play.

While Henrik Zetterberg is back in the United States recovering from back surgery, Niklas Kronwall is the captain, Daniel Alfredsson is an important forward and alternate captain, Jonathan Ericsson is paired with Kronwall, and Gustav Nyquist and Jonas Gustavsson are on the roster.

“Well, obviously, I’m a huge fan of Sweden,” Babcock said, drawing some laughter from the media well aware of the Swedish bloodlines of the Red Wings.

“It’s a beautiful country and they’re good people,” he said as the laughter continued.

“My captain’s from Sweden. It’s unfortunate he’s injured and not here. Their captain is ‘Kroner,’ who plays for us.

“I’ve got really good men on that team, who I’m a huge fan of.

“We all know I’d be cheering for them, if they’d play against anyone but us.

“The Swedes are egoless. They play well. There’s structure to their game. They play well on the power play. They don’t give up anything.

“It should be fun.”