Sochi Olympics: A Hockey Triumph and Speed Woes

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Ice is a slippery place to ply your trade.

As the Sochi Olympics reached their midway point on Saturday, the U.S. stood tied with the Netherlands for second in the overall medal standings with 14, behind only host Russia’s 15. But these results are striking as much for the country’s shortcomings in its favored events, as for its success in others.

An Unlikely Hockey Hero

First, the good: the U.S. hockey team won a stunner against rival Russia in the first round on Saturday, besting the host team 3-2 in one of Sochi’s most exciting competitions so far.

After goals from Joe Pavleski and Cam Fowler, and two Russian answers off the stick of Pavel Datsyuk, the teams headed into overtime tied two goals apiece. The overtime period failed to crown a winner and the contest moved to the most riveting of potential finishes. Shootouts are a little different under international rules in that any player may take multiple shots following the first three rounds. This set Minnesotan T.J. Oshie up for stardom.

Oshie was one of the final skaters named to the U.S. team and is a shootout specialist. He proved it on Saturday, beating Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky on four of his six attempts, including the game-winner, an authoritative wrister through Bobrovsky’s five-hole. You can view Oshie’s entire titillating shootout performance here.

Twelve teams qualified for the Olympic hockey tournament: Russia, Slovakia, the U.S. and Slovenia in Group A, Finland, Canada, Norway and Austria in Group B, and the Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland and Latvia in Group C. In the preliminary round, teams are ranked within their groups based on a points system (3 points for a regulation win, 2 for an overtime/shootout win, 1 for an overtime/shootout loss, and 0 for a regulation loss). In the case of a tie, head-to-head records and points determine the rankings.

The U.S. currently sits third in the overall standings, prior to its Sunday tilt against Slovenia, with the top four teams getting a first-round bye in the playoffs. The fifth through twelfth-ranked teams are bracketed and play to gain entry to the quarterfinals. The winners of the semifinal round play for gold and silver, while the losers of that round play for bronze. The U.S. will look to be in that gold medal game on the final day of the Games, February 23.

A Single Medal in Alpine Skiing

The U.S. ski team has been starved for speed in Sochi to this point, managing only a single medal (Julia Mancuso’s bronze in the super combined) through five events. The results are particularly disappointing considering the country’s improving Olympic alpine performances in recent years.

The disappointment continued on Saturday during a tough women’s super-g competition that saw only 18 of 49 skiers complete the course. Seven of the first eight skiers didn’t make it to the finish, with only American Leanne Smith completing the course. Sadly for Smith, she served more as a guinea pig for skiers to follow, as other athletes used her run to gauge the difficult parts of the super-g course to alter their approaches and improve their times. Mancuso finished well off the lead in eighth place.

The men have yet to medal in Sochi with three events remaining (slalom, giant slalom and super-g) and the outlook in those events isn’t great. The U.S. hasn’t medaled in slalom since Phil and Steve Mahre finished one-two in ’84 in Sarajevo. Bode Miller’s silver in 2002 in Salt Lake City was the first ever medal for an American in giant slalom and remains the only one to date. Their best chance may come in the men’s super-g, where Miller took silver and Andrew Weibrecht took bronze in 2010 in Vancouver. Ted Ligety, carrying a ton of momentum into the Games following some blistering performances on the World Cup circuit, went so far as to admit that he choked in Friday’s super combined and remains medal-less.

The women will look to better their results in their two remaining events, the slalom and the giant slalom. Their slalom hopes are dim, as an American woman hasn’t medaled in the event since Barbara Cochran won gold in 1972 in Sapporo. Giant slalom might make for their best chance, since it’s an event Mancuso won in 2006 in Torino.

If it’s any consolation for the U.S. squad, Sochi hasn’t seen many favorites perform well on the alpine slopes. Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, Switzerland’s Carlo Janka and France’s Alexis Pintaurault, all previous champions and expected to top the podium at some point, have struggled. But for a country that won eight medals in Vancouver, its best finish of all time by far in alpine skiing, and with two of the all-time medal leaders in the sport in Miller (second all-time with five medals) and Mancuso (third all-time with four medals) Sochi represents a step back.

Speed Skating Shutout

Things have gone so poorly for U.S. speed skaters in Sochi that the team made a drastic move on Friday. They switched from their brand new Under Armour-designed suits, expected to give them a competitive advantage, to the same suits they used in the last Olympics. When you’ve failed to medal in any event, sometimes change is good.

But the change hasn’t made a difference. Four-time medalist Shani Davis, in what is likely to be his last Olympics, finished 11th in Saturday’s 1500m after a disappointing eighth place in the 1000m earlier in the week. The U.S. has won more medals in speed skating in its history than in any other Olympic discipline. Their 67 total medals puts them third all-time behind the Netherlands and Norway, but it’s possible they may not add a single medal to that total in Sochi, with three events left: the women’s 1500m and 5000m, and the men’s 10,000m.

Things haven’t gone any better on the short track, where the U.S. won six medals in 2010 in Vancouver. They’ve yet to win a single medal in the discipline with four events left to go this year, and clearly miss stalwart Apolo Anton Ohno, the winningest short tracker of all time with eight total medals.