By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Just a week ago, he was the toast of the hockey world, Dan Bylsma, commanding Team USA through four consecutive victories at the Sochi Olympics by a combined score of 20-6, escaping from the medal-mad Russians on their home stage, sitting for an appreciative profile by veteran Sports Illustrated hockey ace Michael Farber.
Then, within 72 stunning hours, he was just toast. Chewed up ravenously by ever-demanding, never-satisfied angry Americans, his charred crusts cast into the waiting maw of hockey cyber mutts the world over.
The only guy on that curve of the planet who had a worse Olympics was probably Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, routed from his opulent palace after weeks of unspeakable violence in Kiev’s public square and still on the lam.
At least nobody died on the ice at Sochi, but you wouldn’t know it from the scorching disappointment within too big a segment of the Team USA fan base.
Back inside the Consol Energy Center after two weeks by the Black Sea, Bylsma on Tuesday recalled the hurt from disappointment’s ground zero.
“We had played four games and we end up with the Canadians in the semifinal game, and maybe the biggest disappointment of the tournament was that that wasn’t the gold-medal game,” Bylsma said. “You play the Canadians in a semifinal game, you play a 1-0 game, and what you came there for really, to win a gold medal, is gone.
“And we had to deal with that disappointment going into the next game, and I don’t think you get rid of the disappointment. I don’t think you can say, ‘Hey, you can put this game behind you, and let’s move on.’?”
That was pretty obvious in the 5-0 belly-flop before the Finns with the bronze medal still within reach, but the critics who’ll point to America’s 137 consecutive scoreless minutes to end the tournament as damningly analogous to the Penguins’ feeble exit from the Eastern Conference Final in June against Boston aren’t much for cause on effect on this one.
They’d rather have those 137 minutes as the final proof that Bylsma can’t adjust, runs a flawed system, should likely have his name rubbed off the Stanley Cup and doesn’t always match the right tie to the right suit.
This ignores the near-suffocating intensity of the semifinal, an ice war that flowed end-to-end for 60 minutes in which but one puck crossed a goal line that just happened to be the one behind Jonathan Quick. It could as easily been the one behind Carey Price; it just wasn’t.
There’s no shame in that.
The shame is in thinking there is.
“Carey Price and Jonathan Quick played fantastic, the way they did throughout the tournament,” said general manager Ray Shero, who was in Sochi as one of the architects of Team USA. “Looking back, shots were 37-31; they had the better opportunities, but we had our chances.
“You want to play a certain way, but, when the puck drops, it’s different a lot of times. The game was really fast, and it seems in the four or five days since that game the message is always how the U.S. didn’t play. Well, I think the credit has got to go to Canada. Those guys were really, really good. There’s no denying that fact. That might be the greatest Olympic hockey team ever.
“To look at how they played the game, their defense was fantastic. They were big. They were strong. They were mobile. And they were just deep, deep, deep.
“I thought we had a great group of players, a great group of caring guys who were leaders on their own teams, NHL captains. A lot should be said about that and not so much about how the Americans didn’t score. Canada scored one goal. They did not score a lot of goals in the tournament (17 in six games). It was one game and it was a good game. It was nothing to be ashamed of.
“The only thing is you’ve got to come back the next day against the Finns. We talked about it and we talked about it as a team. We had a good first period, but inside of 11 seconds we were down, 2-0, in second period and couldn’t recover for some reason. That’s the game you wish you could do over, but, obviously, we can’t.”
I don’t see how all of this puts Bylsma anywhere but where he was a week ago, the winningest Penguins coach, the winningest Penguins coach in the NHL playoffs, and, but for a bouncing puck this way or that, a Penguins coach with a gold medal around his neck.
Not exactly the kind of leader that gets routed from the palace.
Photo: Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT