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The Olympics: Top Four

Hockey highlights from Sochi

This weekend we head into the final games in the Olympic mens hockey tournament. Four terrific teams left standing. Any one of them has the chance to take home the gold. Yet over the past two weeks, we have already been dazzled by so many great stories and dramatic moments.

It has been riveting to watch, and many fans here in Buffalo have gotten up early to catch all the action live: coffee and breakfast at home, watching a bit of the games before heading on off to work, and then keeping an eye on the score via mobile app or on the computer at the office. Most of the fun took place at any of the numerous watch parties at local pubs and bistros, opening their doors early with bloody marys, mimosas, and bacon and eggs.

We are giddy with anticipation for the Buffalo Sabres to resume play next week with three straight home games in four nights. In the meantime, here are our top favorite stories from Olympics mens hockey. Narrowing this list down was a tough chore.

Phil Kessel Piles on the Goals

Plenty of Buffalo Sabres fans and Team USA enthusiasts have alternately been cheering and chanting, and then taking long hot showers afterwards, as Toronto Maple Leafs bad boy Phil Kessel emerges as one of the true heroes on the Americans’ attempt to win their first gold medal since 1980.

Following the exciting shootout win against Russia last Saturday, some were fearing a let-down the following day against Slovenia, which had shown surprising strength and resiliency in beating Slovakia.

It didn’t happen. Kessel scored early and often, recording a natural hat trick, something that no American had done in more than 10 years of international competition. Team USA beat Slovenia 5-1 and punched their ticket into the quarterfinals.

A projected USA vs. Canada matchup would be a huge stage for Kessel, who is revered in Leafs Nation and across the spectrum of Hockey Night in Canada viewers nationwide.

T. J. Oshie: Instant American Hero

Oshie was quick to negate all the hero talk after his amazing shootout performance, instead emphatically stating that such lofty titles are reserved for the men and women in uniform. That humility just further endeared Oshie to the an American public. He even earned accolades from President Barack Obama via twitter.

Oshie has played for the St. Louis Blues for the past five seasons. Simply put, he is a shootout specialist. Sort of like Ales Kotalik when he played for the Sabres. Under Olympic rules, if the shootout is still tied after three rounds, a team can insert any player they want for subsequent shootout attempts. So it became the Oshie show, as he squared off against Russia’s Sergei Bobrovsky. In the sixth round he scored to save the game and continue the contest. Finally in the eighth, after Ilya Kovalchuk was stoned by Team USA’s Jonathan Quick, Oshie took his slow-motion deke to Bobrovsky before going five-hole. The Americans had themselves a win. Maybe it wasn’t 1980’s Miracle on Ice, but it sure felt like it.

Mike Gilbert Travels to Sochi

Buffalo Sabres fans know Mike Gilbert as the Sabres spokesman at team press conferences and the guy standing next to the coach after games. One thing that Gilbert does not do is social media; he relegates those tasks to others on his staff.

All that changed when he was named to assist Team USA hockey with their public relations efforts. Gilbert signed on for Twitter and Facebook accounts, and has been providing daily updates from his desk in Sochi, offering a fascinating, behind-the-scenes perspective on the games.

Public relations officials are supposed to be stoic, impartial, and expressionless in their tasks, no matter the emotions of the event. Gilbert managed to snare a ticket to the opening ceremonies and wrote, “I’ve been to 3 Super Bowls, Stanley Cup Finals, All Star games but nothing compared to what I was a part of last night.” In his daily briefings, we’ve seen selfies with Oshie, glimpses of Putin, and an enthusiasm in reporting which has been fun to follow.

The Hopes of the Host Nation

At this Olympic hockey tournament it can be said that the most pressure is on the host nation of Russia. A nation as hockey crazed as any in the Olympic field.

When the NHL was teetering as to whether to send its players to Sochi, it was Russian players like Alexander Ovechkin deciding to play regardless of NHL approval that tipped the league to send their best there.

The Sochi games were opened with global hockey icon Vladislav Tretiak lighting the flame of the Olympic cauldron. The shootout loss to the US and the controversial goal waved off late in the third stirred up national outrage. Vladimir Putin has made frequent appearances at Russia’s hockey games. In a nation that hasn’t seen Olympic gold since it was once known as the USSR, it’s no secret that, of all the Olympic events, a gold medal in hockey would shine the brightest for them.

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