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Kovacevic: Bylsma's dream job unravels

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 4:49 p.m.
REUTERS
Team USA head coach Dan Bylsma reacts during the third period of their men's ice hockey bronze medal game against Finland at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games February 22, 2014.
REUTERS
Team USA head coach Dan Bylsma reacts during the third period of their men's ice hockey bronze medal game against Finland at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games February 22, 2014. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor (RUSSIA - Tags: SPORT ICE HOCKEY OLYMPICS)

SOCHI, Russia — Unraveled.

That's the term Dan Bylsma used to describe how the United States responded to two rapid-fire Finland strikes in what wound up a 5-0 rout in the Olympic bronze medal game Saturday at Bolshoy Ice Dome.

He could have used more colorful language, of course, as a few of his players did.

Ryan Suter: “We collapsed.”

Max Pacioretty: “I'm not proud at all right now. We were playing for a medal and didn't show up.”

David Backes: “We had better left in the tank. When you're playing for your country, that'll leave a sour, sour taste for a long time.”

Zach Parise: “They played like they had something to win … and we shut it down.”

Wow.

That last one's from the captain.

And here's another, also from after the game: “The United States was the best team in the tournament.”

That was Erkka Westerlund, Finland's coach who was seated right next to Bylsma at the news conference — that's the awkward way at the Olympics — echoing a sentiment many here had held for two weeks. The Americans were 4-0. Led the tournament with 20 goals. Had a rising Jonathan Quick in net. Came together quickly and convincingly, maybe better than anyone.

And then, in a 24-hour span, they were shut out by Canada, 1-0, in a result that would have been far more lopsided if not for Quick, then embarrassed by Finland much more than that result shows. They took dumb penalties, conceded ugly odd-man breaks, pretty much started packing an hour or so early.

It was disgraceful for all involved, on and off the ice.

This wasn't some Monday night in October against the Hurricanes. This was a team representing its country, wearing the colors. I'm not a big fan of the bronze game concept, in general, as it applies to men's hockey. I'd just as soon see a points system decide who's third and let both losers fly home. But man, show up.

So why didn't they, with all that grit, character and other intangibles Ray Shero, David Poile and staff prioritized?

I'll be even more blunt about it than after the Canada game: They were declawed by their own coach. They were deployed in a 1-2-2 trap that had a group of dedicated, career-long forecheckers skating backward. That was fine with all the leads early in the tournament but an egregious error in the medal round.

After the Canada game, Suter called the Americans “passive,” which I thought might have been a shot at Bylsma's system.

I wasn't sure until after the Finland game, when Parise offered this, unsolicited: “We were passive. We had one forechecker at times, let them break out of their zone.”

Again, that's from the captain. Moreover, it's the same term Suter and others used, which makes it mere common sense that it likely was working around the locker room.

Talk about unraveled.

Bylsma again declined to blame the system, instead citing simple fatigue.

“Losing that game,” he said, referring to Friday, “it took a lot out of us, and we weren't able to respond.”

It's a fair point. Two games in a 24-hour span is tough under any circumstance, much less the drain of an especially difficult defeat. To boot, Finland's semifinal, also Friday, started five hours earlier. Brooks Orpik told me afterward, “I don't know about the Finns, but I'm not sure I can feel my legs right now.”

Still, that doesn't pardon the stubbornness of sticking by the same system, the same lines, even the same exhausted goaltender in Quick when Ryan Miller was available.

“I won't second-guess that,” Bylsma said of starting Quick.

Of course he won't. He didn't second-guess anything that went awry here. He apparently didn't learn from any mistakes, either. Or adjust when it looked like the opponent might have had a superior strategy, such as, say, Jonathan Toews utterly smothering Phil Kessel despite Bylsma holding last change.

I don't like to mix Winter Olympics and Penguins, but stop me if any of this sounds familiar.

Everyone applauded when Bylsma kept sending T.J. Oshie back out for that already iconic shootout. I did, too. But stubbornness comes with more drawbacks than benefits.

Maybe this lesson will be different.

Bylsma has had hard losses in Pittsburgh, but I'd venture to guess this was right up there. He wanted this U.S. job more than most folks know. He pushed hard for it. And when he arrived here, he beamed in a way I had never seen. He spoke of the Miracle, of Herb Brooks, of country first, growing more comfortable as the wins came.

I can't begin to imagine what that half-day flight will feel like.

When someone asked at the news conference what Bylsma will take from these Games, he offered this: “It was an honor and privilege to represent our country and coach this team. It was the biggest honor of my career.”

I believe him.

I just don't believe he'll be asked back after he might have pulled the first string toward all the unraveling.

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