T.J. Sochi

More than six and a half years after the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” when a bunch of American amateur hockey players downed the vaunted Soviet team at the Olympics in Lake Placid, T.J. Oshie was spawned in the Boeing hub of Everett, Washington.  It’s safe to say he doesn’t have the same visceral reaction to the 1980 matchup1 as do those who were in attendance or watching live, or at least those who were even arguably alive at the time, but he seems comfortable enough authoring an exciting epilogue to it…

Although the Olympic hockey tournament now allows NHL players to compete, which was not the case in 1980, parity does not exactly rule.   Just look at how many fans had never heard of Oshie before the U.S. vs. Russia game in Sochi on February 15 — a key contributor on the American squad was as unheralded as The Skeleton Key.2  The U.S. team does have many fine young players who are familiar to seasoned hockey fans, including, among others, Patrick Kane and goalie Jonathan Quick, but the Americans once again find themselves as major underdogs to a flashy Canadian team and a star-studded Russian squad featuring such luminaries as 60 goal scorer and three (soon to be four) time scoring champion Alexander Ovechkin, 400 career goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk, captain Pavel Datsyuk, and Pittsburgh co-dynamo Evgeni Malkin.

The group stage clash of the two teams did not necessarily mean much in the context of the tournament, as both squads will move on to the knockout stages, but it certainly was one for the ages.  Even without the gripping shootout, this was hockey at its white knuckle best.  Datsyuk was in fine form, grabbing the Russians two goals.  The U.S. played solidly on the other side as well, lucking out on an overturned Russian goal (due to a fortuitous displacement of the net) and nearly grabbing a late tally on a stirring breakaway by Kane.

But this game will be remembered for the shootout,3 or, as Barry Melrose would say, the shoot-oat.  More specifically, it will be remembered more for shootout strategy than the shootout goals themselves.

International hockey differs from the NHL game in many ways.  The international rink is 10 feet longer and, more significantly, 13 feet wider.  Goalies have no spatial restrictions on handling the puck in the international game.  Until the new hybrid rule this season, the NHL required the puck to be touched for icing to be called.  The NHL doles out five minutes in the brig for fighting, while the international rules require a match penalty, an automatic ejection, and the death of the offender’s first born son. International games, apparently, also employ different shootout rules.  The rules require a team to trot out three different shooters, but after the third round, the same player can be used multiple times, up to infinity.  This little-known rule came into play in a big way in Sochi.

The first three shootout rounds in U.S. vs. Russia consisted of a leadoff goal by Oshie, then a miss by Malkin, a save against James Van Riemsdyk (U.S.), a save against Datsyuk, a save against Joe Pavelski (U.S.), and a dramatic equalizing goal by Kovalchuk.  Then all strategic hell broke loose.  The shootout would go on for a full five additional sudden death rounds.  The Russians immediately unleashed Kovalchuk a second time, and would alternate between him and Datsyuk for the remainder of the contest.  The U.S. decided to field Oshie all five  times, six in total.  He would make four of his six chances and win it on the last one in heart-stopping fashion, garnering glory and trending on Twitter in the blink of an eye.

Shootouts are intensely psychological.  Many fans love their drama.  Many fans resent that flowing and intricate six-on-six games are decided on what amounts to mini-skills competitions that could practically be contested in an average garage.4  Regardless of the merits of the shootout system, both sides know what’s coming, and both want to optimize their chances of winning.  There is a very fine line between picking a winning offensive strategy and just psyching out the opposing goalie, but both accomplish the same goal.  It’s an awkward, agility-focused, icy game of chess.

There are a few things about the U.S./Russia shootout that surprised me.  First, I don’t understand why the three-round shooter rule is what it is.  Requiring a team to field multiple shooters would make sense.  Allowing a team to use a shooter multiple times would also make sense.  But the hybrid feels like it was designed by a camp counselor or little league coach who wants to pretend like she is encouraging participation, presumably to prevent angry parents from yelling at her, while she really just wants the biggest kid to keep shooting so the team will win.  It’s a fun wrinkle, I suppose, but it’s more than a little arbitrary.

Second, there was the Russian alternating strategy.  If the goal is to get your two best shooters into a rhythm, why field Kovalchuk twice in a row and make Datsyuk sit for several rounds in the middle?  Also, why allow Quick to get into a rhythm in response?

Finally, there was the fascinating deluge of Oshie shots.  Although he eventually had success, never did he look alpha, or even solidly confident, in the face of such international pressure.  On the other hand, the kid has moves, and he got plenty of chances to show them off.  Does a goalie get discouraged by the other team showing such confidence in their point man that they continually send him unto the breach even though, by Oshie’s own admission, he “was running out of moves there”?  Or is a goalie emboldened by the other team’s choice to hit the repeat button and keep each shot stylistically similar and within the four corners of the Oshie dossier that Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky surely studied beforehand?  Well, did Bobby Fischer’s bizarre antics in Iceland in 1972 alienate Spassky and put him on edge, or were they part of a paranoid vortex that drew in Fischer and chipped away at the tactical edge he already had?  Don’t look at me.  I…I don’t know.  The point is, either probably could have happened, which is what makes the situation so compelling to begin with.

Eventually, the American strategy won out.  Quick’s quickness likely had something to do with it, as did Oshie’s resourcefulness, of course.  He was, after all, chosen as the American shootout specialist.  If the two nations face each other in the medal rounds, the strategy will be all the more fascinating.  All we know for sure is that America put forth a skillful but unproven kid from the Pacific Northwest and he went toe to toe with Russian powerhouses for six out of eight rounds.  The strategy was truly imaginative.  1980 gave us the miracle on ice. 2014’s shootout was merely chimerical on ice.

Footnotes:

  1. Most forget that the miracle happened prior to the gold medal game.  The Americans went on to beat Finland for gold, preventing what might have been the biggest emotional hangover loss in sports history.
  2. Let’s be honest.  This was Kate Hudson’s magnum opus.
  3. Shootout winning goals are adorably called “bullitts” in some parts of the Euro zone.
  4. The same can be said for World Cup soccer.
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2 thoughts on “T.J. Sochi

  1. Great post. I agree–the current system does seem like camp-counselor logic. It feels like the counselor assumed the game would be won in the early shootout rounds anyway, so it was pretty unlikely that any team would get to the point of using the biggest kid in those later rounds. I’d be interested to know how many times games have gone beyond those first three rounds.

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  2. I like the hybrid system; as a fan you are entertained with a small amount of depth to start, and if that isn’t enough, teams are left to choose their own adventure in the event of a tie. At the very least, it inspires some conversation like this, and, in my opinion, watching a shoot-out where the skill level keeps declining in every subsequent round would be either mildly entertaining to really frustrating. For example, if the NBA decided to do decide games like hockey and soccer do, we could have a dunk contest to finish out the round (not this new, really crappy all-star format). Now, would you want the best dunkers to go, or would it be fun to see Jimmer Fredette try to get above the rim? It depends on where you’re sitting. Either way you’re in for a spectacle!

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