SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The United States edged out host nation Russia in a thrilling men's ice hockey game at the Winter Olympics on Saturday, but the American speed skaters' medalless misery continued despite a last-minute switch in the suits they wore.
Ice hockey mania gripped the Sochi Games on another warm, sunny day on the Black Sea coast, as two of the sport's heavyweights met in a game redolent of rivalries past.Russian President Vladimir Putin watched the game, but his thoughts were also with compatriot and skicross racer Maria Komissarova, who underwent 6 1/2 hours of spinal surgery after breaking her back in a training crash up in the mountains.
At the futuristic Bolshoy Ice Dome back in Sochi, the hosts lost 3-2 after T.J. Oshie scored in the eighth round of the shootout to end an electrifying clash.
Evoking memories of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics 'Miracle on Ice', when a group of American college players upset the former-Soviet Union's 'Big Red Machine', the game was only a qualifier, but that mattered little to those watching.
Putin, whose legacy will rest in part on the Feb. 7-23 Games going smoothly, was philosophical in defeat.
"Sport is sport," he said during a meeting with Afghan war veterans. "I think the team put in a very decent performance. We'll see. There are key games ahead. We wish them success."
There was double joy for the host nation after Viktor Ahn led Russia to a one-two in the men's 1,000 meters short track speed skating, and "Russian Rocket" Alexander Tretiakov won Russia's first Olympic gold in skeleton.
The marquee game of the men's ice hockey preliminary delivered on everything it had promised - breathtaking pace, skill, intensity, great goaltending, some controversy and plenty of edge-of-your seat drama.
Everything except a win for the hosts.
Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk called for calm despite the disappointment.
"Everything is OK, nothing terrible has happened," he said.
"It's only a preliminary game, everything will be decided in the semi-final and the final."Despite frustration at what Putin recently called the West's Cold War mentality toward Russia, he has appeared at ease as he embarked on rounds of "wine diplomacy" in Sochi that included sharing a glass, and a chat, with U.S. team officials."I want to thank the fans who create this unique atmosphere of friendship and cooperation," he said on Saturday.
There were no such happy thoughts for the U.S. speed skating team, normally a powerhouse in the sport but yet to win a single medal in Sochi.
Puzzled by their poor performance, the Americans decided to ditch their high-tech outfits and went back to skinsuits for Saturday's men's 1,500 metre race. But the switch, confirmed minutes before the contest began, had little noticeable effect.
Four U.S. athletes were in contention: Brian Hansen finished seventh, Shani Davis 11th, Joey Mantia 22nd and Jonathan Kuck 37th.
Davis, a double Olympic champion who came into the Games one of the favourites to add to his medal haul, was devastated.
Asked about the mood in the team after the latest disappointment, he replied: "We have no medals, man, we have none. And the way things are looking we might not get any, and it's sad because we've had a lot of potential, a lot of talent, a lot of things going for us and looking good going forward.
"But it's terrible, terrible, man. Big, big disappointment."
Zbigniew Brodka of Poland won the race by just three thousandths of a second.
In the rough-and-tumble world of short track speed skating, China's Zhou Yang successfully defended her 1,500 metres title, while Ahn kissed the ice and paraded the Russian flag after his victory in one of the premier events in short track.
Competing under his original name Ahn Hyun-soo, he won three gold medals for South Korea at the 2006 Olympics in Turin before a bitter fall-out with officials in his country of birth.
Earlier this week, South Korean President Park Geun-hye ordered a government ministry to investigate how one of the country's top athletes had ended up competing for a rival.
"I was touched by the loud applause the Russian spectators gave me ... today's result proves that my decision was right," Ahn said. "That's why today is so meaningful."
Up in the mountains, Anna Fenninger maintained Austria's grip on the women's Alpine skiing super-G title, in a race where just finishing proved a big challenge for the early starters.
Snow conditions have been a major talking point throughout the Games, with clear skies and temperatures of around 14 degrees Celsius in the mountains making the surface soft and slushy, particularly later in the day.
In and around the impressive Olympic village in Sochi, people have been wandering around in T-shirts and swimming in the sea, in a surreal atmosphere for a Winter Games.
Sweden provided the latest Olympic upset when they won gold in the women's cross-country 4x5km relay, while hot favorites Norway could only manage fifth. Charlotte Kalla produced an astonishing comeback leg to earn the win.
Close to home
Here's how New Hampshire's Olympians fared Saturday:
Alpine skiing: Conway's Leanne Smith finished 18th in the women's super-G. Smith was the No. 2 American finisher. Teammate Julia Mancuso placed eighth.
Ski jumping: Andover's Nick Fairall narrowly missed advancing to the final in the men's large hill competition. He placed 35th with 108.3 points - 1.4 points behind the final qualifier. Lebanon's Nick Alexander, who had also advanced beyond Friday's qualifying round, finished 48th. They were the top two Americans.
Men's hockey: Former Manchester Monarch Jonathan Quick was the winning goalie, and former UNH forward James van Riemsdyk had an assist in the United States' shootout victory over Russia (3-2). Another former Monarch, Dustin Brown, also played for the U.S. team.