By Sean Hartnett
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With immeasurable amounts of pride on the line in an Olympic heavyweight clash between the United States and Russia, an eight-round shootout delivered a tense and thrilling finish to a game full of unrivaled intensity, drama, and controversy.
Shootouts tend to be an uneventful solution to settle non-elimination games that remain deadlocked following one overtime period.
An "Old West" showdown unfolded between American winger T.J. Oshie and Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The scenario was possible because international rules allow teams to call on the same shooter time after time once the shootout hits the fourth round -- the first sudden death round -- unlike in the NHL where teams have to go through their entire active roster of skaters before anyone can shoot a second time.
Head coach Dan Bylsma placed his trust in the skilled hands of Oshie, who took six out of the eight U.S. attempts. He scored four times and launched his name into the national consciousness by sending the Americans to a thrilling 3-2 victory.
Oshie advanced slowly on his final attempt but his quick wrister nearly knocked Bobrovsky's water bottle into orbit.
As soon as the puck hit twine, cheers from a minority of Americans gathered inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome became recognizable. Those cheers were matched by celebrations from coast-to-coast back home as Team USA pulled off an unforgettable victory on Russian soil.
All game long, booming chants of "Ro-ssi-ya! Ro-ssi-ya!" had engulfed the arena. But when it was all said and done, the locals were in a state of shock and disbelief. Bylsma said he was taken aback by a game that could best be described as an instant classic.
"It was a great game all around in an unbelievable setting and atmosphere," Bylsma told reporters. "This is our second game, and while it's a big win for our team, we have to keep going forward."
By scoring four shootout goals, Oshie outgunned Russian icons Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, who were slowed just enough by American goalie Jonathan Quick in the shootout. Fans of the St. Louis Blues know all about Oshie's talents. Now, all of America and the world will be keeping a close eye on the energetic 5-foot-11 winger who wasn't a lock to make the Olympic roster in the first place.
Ahead of the Jan. 1 roster announcement at Michigan Stadium, Oshie was on the bubble. He eventually beat out the likes of Bobby Ryan, Kyle Okposo, Brandon Dubinsky and Jason Pominville for one of the final slots on the 25-man roster.
Even Blues captain and teammate David Backes wasn't sure if Oshie would make the roster and eagerly watched the announcement from his home couch. When he noticed a 74 on one of the youthful skaters on the Michigan Stadium ice, he immediately leaped out of his seat in excitement and informed a delighted Oshie that he would be on the plane to Sochi.
Prior to the Olympics, Backes said on his official website, DavidBackes.com, that he was "ecstatic" that Oshie was joining him in Russia.
Following Oshie's shootout heroics, Backes predicted that his teammate will gain star status back home in the States.
"T.J. Oshie is going to be a household name after that display he put on," Backes told the IIHF official website.
The country has now been clued in to Oshie's all-action style of play and scoring ability. Those who watch him frequently know that the undersized winger plays with an intensity and desire that is befitting a player given the privilege of wearing the USA sweater.
His physical, in-your-face game as well as his quick hands and scoring touch have been known around the NHL for a while now, but on the biggest stage he was a relative unknown.
Thanks to Oshie's heroics, the United States is in pole position to win Group A and earn a bye to the quarterfinal round. Their final group game will take place against Slovenia at 7:30 a.m. Eastern time on Sunday.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
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