Olympic hockey may affect the Penguins’ season
The Olympics weren’t supposed to end this way. The United States was supposed to come home with gold, or at least a medal. But a day after losing to rival Canada, the United States men’s hockey team fell flat against Finland, losing 5–0 in the bronze medal game.
Now the team, composed of NHL players from across the league, is forced to pull it back together as they join their other teammates who competed for Russia, Canada and Finland, and who all had emotional games with the U.S. The Penguins will have a particularly interesting trip back as they try to continue their dominance through the Metropolitan Division.
Head coach Dan Bylsma and assistant coach Tony Granato of the Penguins were both with the United States team in Sochi, with Bylsma serving as head coach of the U.S. national team. How he handles the disappointment of these Olympic Games and the massive media pressure that surrounds them will be key to the Penguins keeping level heads and making a strong push toward the playoffs.
Refocusing the team after this rough two-week stretch would be tough even for a coach that is not distracted, but balancing the tensions that arise from the rapid shift from teammates to competitors and back will be an even tougher tight rope given Bylsma’s proximity to the national pride issues at hand.
Star center Evgeni Malkin may have the toughest time returning to form from the Olympics. Playing in his third Olympic games, Malkin was one of the many NHL stars trying to bring gold back home to Russia at their home games. A common sentiment throughout the games was that regardless of medal totals, a gold medal for men’s hockey meant a successful Olympics for Russia.
Russia’s first major challenge came against the United States in group play. Malkin was forced to go head-to-head with his head coach and defensive teammates Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik in a game that, while meaningless for elimination purposes, felt and looked like the gold medal match. After the game controversially went into overtime due to an unallowed game-winning Russian goal, the resulting shootout was thought to go in Russia’s favor given the sharpshooters they had, such as Malkin.
While St. Louis Blues winger T.J. Oshie became an overnight sensation in the U.S. for his winning 4–6 shootout performance, Malkin missed the net with his first attempt and was not given another chance to redeem himself.
In part due to this loss, Russia was not afforded a bye and was forced to play Norway to win a spot in the quarterfinals. While this game was not much of a challenge, it clearly had an effect as Russia was wiped out by a rested Finland in the quarterfinals. Malkin managed to get four shots on goal, but could not connect as the team fell 3–1. Malkin had the misfortune of going up against his line mate Jussi Jokinen in this game, as his bad luck streak against teammates continued.
While Malkin had tough individual games, the toughest rift to heal will likely be between the Canadian and U.S. contingents. With the neighbors facing off in the semifinals, this was thought to be the default gold medal game with the winner cakewalking to the finals victory. As such, tensions were riding high as the two NHL all-star squads faced off. With several sets of teammates facing off against each other, likely none was more opposed than line mates Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz for team Canada against their Penguin teammates and blue line pairing, Orpik and Martin.
The eventual 1–0 Canadian victory, while triumphant for Crosby and Kunitz was devastating to the U. S. contingent which, as stated earlier, flew home empty-handed after getting crushed by Finland.
With 24 games left for the Penguins when they restart play on Thursday, there is still plenty of time for the team to try and work past the national pride feelings that Sochi instilled.
But these players are all very competitive and did not make it this far in their sport by not having a burning competitive rage. How well Bylsma is able to rally himself and his team and get them to turn that emotion toward the common goal of bringing the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh will determine the level of success the Penguins have come May. Some grudges are not so easily buried, but winning dulls all pain.