Perhaps the biggest story leading up to the much ballyhooed Team USA vs. Team Russia game was “who’s the real starting goaltender for Russia?” Colorado Avalanche‘s Semyon Varlamov served said role in Russia’s Team Slovenia game, but Slovenia isn’t the juggernaut that America is, though. Whoever started against the Yanks would, in the eyes of the world, be Russia’s true starting goaltender. Varlamov played a decent game against the Slovenes, but did nothing to set himself apart as the clear-cut starter, nor did he seem to do anything detrimental to lose the job. It was his throne to lose.
Well, the Russian brass apparently saw something they didn’t like in Varlamov, forcing him to abdicate the throne and hand the crown to the new king: the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ Sergei Bobrovsky. What came next was some of the best 65-plus minutes of hockey ever.
Both teams clearly placed a lot of value in the outcome of this contest, and both sides brought urgency and intensity, giving the game an elimination-round feel despite the match just helping determine seeding and who would be the Group A winner and recipient of a bye in the first elimination round.
Bobrovsky wholly validated Russian management’s decision to have him between the pipes. He looked big in net, played angles perfectly and brought a calming presence to Russia’s back end. His blueliners could sense real early on that Bob was in the zone and soft goals would not be on the menu for the Americans.
Team USA couldn’t solve Columbus’s top cop for almost the entire first 40 minutes. It took an American power play to create a rebound in a crease occupied by three American jerseys to Russia’s one, lone defender. This lead to a score that Anaheim Ducks‘ Cam Fowler tucked away for his first goal as an Olympian. There was next to nothing Bobrovsky could do to stop that inevitability.
Team USA’s second goal came midway through the third, after Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane fed a perfect cross-ice pass between all four of Russia’s penalty killers that San Jose Sharks‘ Joe Pavelski one-timed home. Russia would soon tie it back up at 2-2, though.
Said goals were certainly the exception, though. Bobrovsky made saves off quality scoring chances and pucks that took crazy bounces and deflections. It made one wonder if Bob was teetering on precognition; he was just that good.
Russia’s netminder had his brightest moment when Kane — one of America’s top stick-handling and scoring dynamos — came in on a clean breakaway. Bobrovsky stopped him clean in the most calm and graceful of manners, making the most difficult of saves look routine and humdrum. Moments later, Kane would get off a great backhand scoring opportunity, but Bobrovsky again said “nyet.” At this point, Blue Jackets fans were surely going through an existential crisis: simultaneously being filled with pride as their club team’s greatest stud showed off what he could for all the world to see while also cursing his name for thwarting America and their fans’ patriotic ambitions.
Bobrovsky seemed to have the NHL‘s “Superman” solved, but St. Louis Blues‘ T.J. Oshie was to become Bob’s kryptonite and a newfound household name in America; Oshie buried four-of-six shootout shots, giving America the highest profile hockey win of the Olympics so far.
Surely, Bobrovsky and his comrades are disappointed with the outcome, but Bob should hold his head high. Russia’s skaters played a quality game in front of him to be sure, but still surrendered prime scoring chances that Bobrovsky got the better of the vast majority of the time. If you don’t count his shootout loss against his save percentage, he posted a stellar .939 save percentage against a tenacious, skilled American squad. He was also incredibly poised and deft under the scrutiny of a home country and crowd that demands nothing less than the gold. Heck, even Vladamir Putin — who desperately wants Russian hockey on the top podium — was watching from high up in the stands. That’s immense pressure, plain and simple.
For the city of Columbus, it was a special moment: never before has a Columbus pro player of any sport ever been the undisputed center of the world’s attention like Bobrovsky was on those wristers, deflections, breakaways and shootout shots. Even though it wasn’t the result he fought for, falling just short, that doesn’t change the fact that when the globe aimed its spotlight at him, he didn’t wilt. The Blue Jackets’ franchise is in good, capable, puck-stopping hands.