SOCHI, Russia -- The most important thing about the United States' wild 3-2 eight-shootout preliminary round victory over Russia is the least important thing: The U.S. now looks to be all set to win Group A, which will get them a qualification bye. That's about it: The game is just a tiny step in a lunatic sprint over the next eight days, and if the United States loses in the quarterfinals or the semis, this game will have been utterly meaningless. It's a nice win, but if it had been over, say, Sweden, you likely wouldn't have had several heart palpitations before breakfast.
But you did have several heart palpitations before breakfast. Wasn't it fantastic?
This game was many things -- the introduction of T.J. Oshie to a national populace; a crushing loss for a Russian team in front of a home crowd as madly intense as anything you've ever seen; another sign this U.S. team might be even stronger than the one that won silver four years ago -- but more than anything else, it was a reminder to millions of Americans, all still shaking out the cobwebs of their Friday night, just how electrifying this sport can really be. That the NHL doesn't want its players in this Olympic showcase has never seemed more idiotic. The only thing that could have been a better sales job for the sport would have been if this game had been played outside, in Red Square, in the snow.
T.J. Oshie, the American's American, scored four shootout goals in six tries, and while shootouts -- or "game-winning shots," as the Olympic scoreboard amusingly calls them -- are hardly representative of the greatness of the game, they'll sure do as shorthand while everyone's still brewing their coffee. Nationalism is a funny thing: Blackhawks fans who will be jeering Oshie come playoff time are currently Tweeting photos of him riding a bald eagle.
It just always means more to beat Russia, even if the U.S. isn't an underdog anymore, even if Russia isn't CCCP anymore, even if there isn't a single player on Team USA who was alive when the Miracle on Ice happened. And it always will.
Don't think it doesn't mean the same for Russian fans, too. This country is proud and deeply nostalgic for the days of 1980, when the U.S. beating them was a massive upset, when the U.S.S.R. was a world power of almost terrifying regard. (Vladimir Putin's rise to power, and his continued stranglehold of it, was fueled by this pride, this sense that the nation needed to be that strong again.) You sensed it in the crowd today, which consistently provided some of the loudest noises I have ever heard at a sporting event. This was the toughest ticket so far this Olympics -- it was the first time I have seen scalpers since I got here -- and the crowd brought everything it had. Russians have made up at least 90 percent of every crowd at every event, but this was different: The devotion to hockey, and the importance it represents at this particular Olympics, in this particular place, dwarfs everything else happening here. The Bolshoy Ice Dome vibrated with each movement.
Russian fans are fascinating, like no other fans I've ever come across. They are obviously avid and roaring, but it's all focused in a positive direction. They might be the least cynical fans on earth. This is not to say they are cheerful; they are clearly not that. But they cheer for their team to win, rather than for their team not to lose. They are desperate for a win without dreading a loss, which is something I'd have thought impossible. They chant throughout the game -- "RUSS EY YA!" and "SHAYYY BAAAA," which is technically the Russian word for "puck" but in this context means something more like "SHOOOOOT!" They scream every time Russia so much as crosses the center line with the puck. They stare, fresh-faced and eager, at each delight the JumboTron has to offer them. (After the first intermission, two magicians did a dopey card trick, and not a single Russian fan wasn't staring right at them, rapt.) If left alone for longer than 15 seconds, they will start The Wave. (I counted five for the game.) And most of all -- and this was amazing in a way specific to this game -- they do not boo.
I don't mean they don't boo their own players; I mean they don't boo, period. Russia had a chance to win this game with 4:40 left when defenseman Fedor Tyutin fired one past U.S. goaltender Jonathan Quick to take a 3-2 lead. The crowd exploded -- a simultaneous roar that lasted three minutes without abating -- but on replay, referees saw the net was off its mooring and disallowed it. Now, in any other arena in the world, that sort of thing leads to wild rebellion, to waves of vulgarities and vows of bodily harm, to fun varieties of objects heaved onto the ice. But not here. Here, I didn't hear a single boo. There was a collective darnit and then back to the action, the fans just shaking it off and getting back to work. My colleague Katie Baker of Grantland, sitting to my right, jokingly postulated "maybe they've just learned it's best to respect authority," but I don't think that's it: I just think they saw outrage as a waste of time, an unworthy distraction from the ultimate goal of winning. Russians fans are basically the exact opposite of Mets fans.
This made it all the more impressive that the U.S. could hang in with a crowd that must have felt overwhelming at times, particularly Oshie, who had two separate shots in which a miss would have meant a loss and canned them both. This is as grand a stage as a hockey player could possibly have -- in a game it was obvious by the first intermission would be talked about for decades -- and Oshie, the shootout specialist, etched his name into American hockey history, in front of a scowling Vladimir Putin, to the delight of the U.S. President.
Even though there's another game (against Slovenia) tomorrow, even though there's a whole week's worth of madness left in this tournament, they'll be talking about this one in the United States and Russia for a long, long time. The Americans might win gold, they might not, the Russians might win gold, they might not, but today, with the whole world watching, with millions of people who never watch hockey hanging on every second like their lives depended on it … this might be the one from these Games that we remember. It's always something with USA-Russia. It always will be.