The United States men's hockey team hoped to end its run at the 2014 Winter Olympics on a high note, but the Americans went out with a whimper in a 5-0 loss to Finland in the bronze-medal game in Sochi, Russia.
Finland clearly received a huge boost from the return of Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask to the lineup, as he started between the pipes and registered a 27-save shutout.
Rask missed Finland's semifinal contest against Sweden on Friday due to an illness, and his absence very well could have cost Finland a shot at the gold medal, but he was a factor on Saturday.
Finland was also bolstered by the play of 43-year-old captain Teemu Selanne, who netted two goals in what was his final Olympic game.
After the United States' disappointing loss to Canada in the semifinal, there was some concern regarding Team USA's motivation entering the bronze-medal game. Finland was buzzing initially and generated plenty of chances, however goalie Jonathan Quick's form carried over from Friday's contest.
The Americans were able to weather an early storm and ultimately controlled the pace of play for much of the period. The best scoring opportunity came nearly 14 minutes into the opening frame when Finnish defenseman Kimmo Timonen was penalized for shooting a broken stick toward the puck.
That resulted in a penalty shot, but Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane hit the side of the net despite seemingly having Rask down and out.
It appeared as though American head coach Dan Bylsma initially intended to let T.J. Oshie take the penalty shot after his heroics in the shootout against Russia, but he was told that he had to choose a skater who was on the ice at the time of the infraction, per Chuck Gormley of CSNWashington.com:
Even after the miss, Team USA continued to mount offensive pressure, which was virtually nonexistent against Canada. Another great chance was generated late in the period when Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty took a long lead pass from San Jose Sharks forward Joe Pavelski, but he missed the net on a breakaway.
The United States and Finland entered the locker room with the score tied 0-0, but not before Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk took a puck to the throat in the closing.
Luckily, JVR appeared to shake it off quickly, so both Team USA and the Maple Leafs were able to avoid disaster.
Unfortunately for the Americans, disaster of a different kind struck early in the second period. All signs pointed to Team USA having all of the momentum heading into the middle frame, but perhaps Finnish head coach Erkka Westerlund delivered an inspired speech to his team in the locker room.
The Finns came out flying just like they did to start the game, but this time they were rewarded handsomely.
Selanne, who is the all-time leading scorer in Olympic play, added another goal to his impressive total by putting Finland on top 1-0 in his final Olympic game.
At 43 years of age, Selanne has arguably been Finland's best skater, and his Olympic experience clearly seemed to be a factor in his huge goal.
The Finns were quite energized by Selanne's marker, and that became evident 11 seconds later when Jussi Jokinen took advantage of an American defensive lapse to make it 2-0. That resulted in Bylsma attempting to rally the troops with a timeout, per WGR 550:
That timeout settled things down a bit, and the United States very nearly cut the lead in half. Kane stole the puck from Finland's Leo Komarov and took a slash on a breakaway. He was awarded yet another penalty shot.
The snake-bitten Kane couldn't buy a break, however, as his second penalty-shot attempt was clanged off the post:
Team USA desperately tried to get on the board in the closing seconds of the period, and it nearly did, but a deflection hit the side of the net. A number of American players celebrated, but the replay clearly showed that the puck didn't go in.
After failing to score against Canada and through two periods against Finland, it was wishful thinking more than anything on the United States' part.
The Americans entered the closing stanza in a less-than-ideal situation but still had a chance to mount a comeback. Team USA looked flat for much of the period, though, while Finland played motivated hockey in an effort to close things out.
Suomi took advantage of a power play six minutes in when defenseman Juuso Hietanen put a slap shot through a maze of bodies and beat Quick:
That basically put the game away, but the Finns were far from satisfied. The Americans took yet another penalty minutes later, and Selanne made his Olympic swan song even sweeter by netting his second goal of the game:
Fittingly, Selanne's goal was followed up by a tally from 19-year-old defenseman Olli Maatta to put Finland up 5-0. If Selanne represents Finland's past success in hockey, then Maatta is most definitely one of the players who will make an impact on Finnish hockey in the future.
The United States' loss comes as a disappointment to many, but perhaps nobody feels emptier than Bylsma. Even after Team USA fell to Canada, Bylsma was adamant that his team would regroup and perform well in the bronze-medal game, according to Bob Kraviz of USA Today.
"We're not coming home with nothing,'' Bylsma said.
Had the United States found a way to win bronze, it would have marked the first time that the Americans medaled in consecutive Olympics since 1956 and 1960. Anything short of a gold was going to be tough to swallow regardless, but at least bronze would have been a solid consolation prize to build upon.
Of course, players on the U.S. team were disappointed with the result.
Patrick Kane voiced his displeasure to Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times:
Meanwhile, Zach Parise was clearly frustrated while talking to Sarah Kwak of Sports Illustrated:
It wasn't for a lack of trying on Team USA's part, but the scoring touch simply went away in the final two games. The United States had plenty of good scoring looks against Finland, unlike in the Canada game, but the twine proved elusive.
Saturday's loss will take a long time to get over, but the future is bright for Team USA. Assuming NHL players are allowed to compete in the Olympics come 2018, much of the American defense will be firmly in its prime, the forward corps should remain largely intact and the goaltending situation promises to be strong as well.
Finland likely had a gold-medal mentality entering the Olympics, but with key players such as Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula missing due to injury, a bronze medal was a spectacular result.
This marks Finland's third straight Olympics with a medal, and while it has been unable to top the podium, a legacy of Olympic excellence is being built.
The Finns won't have Selanne on the ice in four years, but with Rask continuing to improve and young skaters like Mikael Granlund and Aleksander Barkov destined for superstardom, Finland should remain among the elite hockey countries in the world.
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