Gangneung, South Korea — The blistering pace on the ice and the atmosphere in the arena was reminiscent of the epic showdown between the United States and Russia in Sochi four years ago.
That’s where the similarities end.
When the teams met again at the Olympics on Saturday night without NHL players, Ilya Kovalchuk and the Russians put on a clinic — outplaying, outhitting and outclassing the U.S. in a 4-0 shutout.
The U.S. must now play in the qualification round Tuesday, while Russians finished first in the group and move on directly to the quarterfinals, hoping their dominance puts T.J. Oshie’s shootout performance in 2014 further in the rearview mirror.
“After the last game in Sochi, I think you guys are still showing the highlights of Oshie scoring those shootouts, right?” Kovalchuk said. “So hopefully you’re gonna change that now.”
Russians Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Slava Voynov and U.S. coach Tony Granato are the only people back from that game, which had higher stakes because of the NHL talent.
There’s still plenty at stake this time with the U.S. looking to win its first Olympic gold medal since the “Miracle On Ice” in 1980.
Granato doubled down after the loss on his pre-tournament comment that the U.S. doesn’t “need a miracle” to win.
What it might need is better goaltending after Ryan Zapolski allowed four goals on 26 shots, including Kovalchuk’s backbreaking goals less than 33 seconds apart at the end of the second period and start of the third.
Zapolski also allowed two goals to Nikolai Prokhorokin, a 2012 Los Angeles Kings draft pick. But it was the costly Kovalchuk goal with 0.2 seconds left in the second period that he wants back.
“It was a knuckle-puck and from a pretty long way away,” said Zapolski, whom Granato confirmed would remain the U.S. starter moving forward.
“The two other goals were really good shots. Good players are able to score goals like that, and those are some of their better players so they found a way to score.”
This night lacked the tense political subtext of the Cold War from their 1980 meeting and the pomp and circumstance of Russian President Vladimir Putin attending and the pressure on the home team in Sochi in 2014, but it had the same kind of in-arena atmosphere.
U.S. and Russian fans filled Gangneung Hockey Centre and went back and forth with “U-S-A” and the “ROSS-I-YA” chants that made up the background noise at the Olympics four years ago.
Entering the game, the Russians looked as if they had better players than the U.S., and that showed in each team’s final preliminary-round game. The U.S. college players who shined in the first two games engaged in the physical play against the Russians but couldn’t make an impact on the score sheet.
“They’ve got a really good group over there, but I’m really confident in our squad,” forward Jordan Greenway said.
“There’s things we’ve got to work on, mistakes we’ve got to learn from in this game. I’m sure we’ll see them again later in the tournament and I think the outcome will be a lot different.”
The U.S. rarely generated the kind of quality scoring chances against Vasily Koshechkin that the Russians did around Zapolski, who played all three preliminary-round games. Koshechkin stopped all 29 shots he faced for his first shutout of the tournament, and the Russians flexed their muscles offensively.
“We played well,” Kovalchuk said. “We came out strong, we scored first goal, then our goalie make some great saves and I think our (penalty kill) was special.”
Recalling captain Brian Gionta’s semi-breakaway and Ryan Donato’s shot off the crossbar, Granato and his players felt they had opportunities and lamented the inability to finish. They sure didn’t think the game was as lopsided as the score.
“I thought we played well enough to deserve better than a 4-0 game,” Granato said. “I was really happy with the effort and the confidence that we gained in knowing that we could play with them. We just didn’t get the results.”
On this stage, the result is all that matters. And in that area, it’s not pretty for the U.S.
“It’s a big loss,” alternate captain Noah Welch said. “They played a hard, physical game and they were the better team tonight.”
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