The United States men's hockey team finished fourth at the Sochi Olympics, and in and of itself, that isn't shocking. In a tournament with so many stacked rosters, that's roughly where they were expected to finish, give or take a spot or two. (I had them finishing fourth prior to the start of the Games.) But then the tournament began, and the Americans looked as good anybody in the preliminary round: They routed two inferior opponents and squeaked by a talented Russian team in one of the most exciting U.S. hockey games ever.
By the time they easily beat the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, they looked capable of beating defending champion Canada in the semifinals and avenging their 2010 loss in Vancouver. (They even convinced a certain dope to change his prediction and pick them to advance to the gold-medal game.) They were the highest-scoring team in the tournament. They were playing well defensively in front of a stellar goaltender. They were healthy and they were hungry.
Then the semifinals arrived, and it all went to hell.
We learned a lot about Team USA in a roughly 24-hour span on Friday and Saturday. First came a 1-0 loss in the highly anticipated semifinal against Canada -- a game that wasn't nearly as competitive as its score might indicate. Then came a 5-0 loss to Finland in the bronze-medal match -- a game that was exactly as competitive as its score might indicate.
The United States, to its credit, didn't play down to the level of weaker opponents in this tournament. But it also struggled to keep up with the other elite teams -- the ones with legitimate medal hopes. In its three most difficult games -- against Russia, Canada, and Finland -- the United States failed to score a single even-strength goal: They twice converted with the man advantage against Russia in group play, and were shut out on consecutive days by Canada and Finland in the knockout round.
In hindsight, what we saw against Russia was an indication of things to come, with the Americans struggling to generate much offense 5-on-5. They found a way to win that game thanks to mostly stellar defensive play (especially from the top pair of Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh), a fortunate dislodgement of a goal post, and the shootout heroics of Jonathan Quick and T.J. Oshie.
But against a Canadian team that was even stronger than Russia (particularly on the blue line), the Americans wilted. They threatened only occasionally on offense, and the furious pace dictated by the Canadians forced them to play their sloppiest game of the tournament in their own end. A day later, against Finland, they were embarrassed as they attempted to at least come away from Sochi with a bronze medal.
Credit Finland, which entered these Games without the hype of some of the other elite teams and quietly played great en route to the bronze. And especially credit the ageless Teemu Selanne, who scored twice in probably his final international game and earned his fourth Olympic medal.
But the United States looked deflated after Finland opened the scoring with two goals in 11 seconds early in the second period. The Americans -- who played with so much energy to open the game, sacrificing their bodies and blocking shots -- looked like they'd lost all hope, and it only got worse once Finland started to run up the score in the third period. Offensively, they were again quiet: Even despite a pair of Patrick Kane penalty shots, they couldn't get a puck past Tuukka Rask. And they made the type of defensive mistakes they'd avoided in the early going of this tournament.
A tournament that began with so much promise for the Americans had gone very wrong, very quickly. To win an Olympic medal, a team needs to beat considerably stronger squads than happy-to-be-there Slovenia and the past-its-heyday Czech Republic. It needs to beat the elite teams -- countries like Russia and Canada and Finland. It's fair -- nay, necessary -- to judge the U.S. team by how it played in these games. And by those criteria, these Olympics were a big disappointment.
So what went wrong? Against tougher defensive teams, the Americans' balanced, multi-line attack failed not just to score, but to generate the sort of sustained attack that creates quality chances. Unable to dazzle the more elite teams with slick passing and puck-handling, they settled for low-quality shots with little chance of producing a rebound. They didn't get enough traffic in front of the net, and even when they were able to maintain possession in the opponents' zone, they were too often forced to the outside.
Defensively, even their top line began to crack against Finland, and despite some admirable shot blocking, by the end of the game Quick's teammates had hung him out to dry. And for what it's worth, they weren't perfectly healthy anymore: After escaping the preliminary round in one piece, defenseman Paul Martin suffered a hand injury in the quarterfinals and missed the team's final two games.
The entire forward corps can share the blame for the team's lack of offense over Team USA's final two games, but Patrick Kane more than anyone will have to answer questions about why he was unable to produce. Kane, one of the most dynamic players on the roster, collected four assists in Team USA's first four games of the tournament, which helped balance the fact that he hadn't scored himself. But he also went scoreless in the final two games, and his two failed penalty shots only helped call attention to his offensive woes. (It's only fitting that "Sad Patrick Kane" will be the meme used in the aftermath of this tournament to sum things up for Team USA.)
USA Hockey -- and its fans -- left Vancouver pleased not just with how the team performed, but with how the future looked. That team exceeded expectations, and because it had so many young players, there was a belief that they'd only get better. But four years later, the U.S. didn't exceed anyone's expectations. At best, they lived up to less favorable projections. At worst, they failed to meet even mildly optimistic ones. American hockey has made strides, but that's exactly why a fourth-place finish is so disappointing.
Over the next few weeks, the American roster -- and the process by which it was selected -- will be dissected and debated. Could Bobby Ryan, or even defenseman Keith Yandle, have provided much-needed offense late in the tournament? Assuming the NHL sends players to the Winter Games in four years (which is far from guaranteed), are there ways to build a roster to allow them to better deal with adversity and make changes when things aren't working, as opposed to trying to plan out every line and every scenario in advance? Even if the Olympic tournament offers a small sample by which to evaluate a team and its chemistry, the smart moves (picking Oshie to fill one of the last roster spots) will be applauded; the questionable ones (selecting slow-footed Brooks Orpik) will be criticized. They have four long years to figure out what happened, and more importantly, to plan for Pyeongchang.
The 2014 U.S. men's team is heading back to North America without a medal. And while we'll always have Oshie in the shootout, one great Olympic moment isn't nearly enough anymore.