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Russia-U.S. hockey gave Games a massive spark

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SOCHI, Russia – On Russian television, in the hours after a thrilling, beautiful and strange hockey game, they showed the Fyodor Tyutin goal that did not count. Tyutin takes a hard wrist shot from the blue line. The puck smacks into a high part of the net. The Russians celebrate. Then they show it again. Shot. Net. Celebrate. Again. Now from a different angle. Now from the first angle. Shot. Net. Celebrate.

And again.

Now, they show the referee go into the booth to review. He puts on a headset. Quick, one more shot of Tyutin scoring. Shot. Net. Celebrate. Back to the referee. He steps out of the booth. He waves off the goal. Now a shot of Russian President Vladimir Putin looking displeased. Now the goal again.

And all the while they are talking – commentators, analysts, a former Russian Olympian. They speak Russian words rapidly, forcefully, emotionally. There is no translator around. There is none needed. It’s clear what they are saying.

They are saying that Russia got cheated.

VIDEO: A Russian-language broadcast of the game

Back home in America, Saturday’s United States-Russia hockey game might have been the moment when these Sochi Olympics took flight. Up to now these have been a disjointed American Olympics. There have been wonderful moments – Sage Kotsenburg taking slopestyle gold on a trick he’d never tried, Julia Mancuso winning a medal at her third straight Olympics, Noelle Pikus-Pace completing her impossible journey with a silver and so on.

There have been numerous disappointments. All of it has felt sporadic and uneven. The Olympics needed a centerpiece.

Then came this magnificent hockey game between the U.S. and Russia in front of a wild crowd here and big early morning crowd back in the States. There was nothing too big at stake except for every emotion and nuance that has marked the turbulent relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Russia scored first on a lightning-strike goal from their hockey genius Pavel Datsyuk. The U.S. answered when defenseman Cam Fowler stuffed home a shot from right in front of the net.

Team USA took the lead on a perfectly set up power play goal from Joe Pavelski early in the third. Russia tied it three minutes later on more breathtaking stuff from Datsyuk. “It was like, they scored, we scored, they scored, we scored,” American T.J. Oshie would say.

WATCH FULL REPLAY OF USA-RUSSIA MEN’S HOCKEY HERE

And all of it was played at such a breathtakingly high level, with so much speed and force and will, that people felt compelled to go on Twitter and gush, “Isn’t Olympic hockey amazing?” The Russians – particularly the Datsyuk line – created beautiful chances. American goalie Jonathan Quick made several unthinkable saves. Time and again, the Russians would create beautiful geometric setups for star Alex Ovechkin to unleash his lethal slap shot. Time and again, American defenders would jump in front of the screaming puck. “Takes tremendous courage,” American coach Dan Bylsma said, happily speaking the obvious.

Shortly before the end of the third period, Tyutin scored the goal that wasn’t a goal. He was standing in back left corner of the zone, and he wristed a shot that Quick lost in traffic. The puck sailed over Quick’s left shoulder, clearly went in the net, and then bounced out. The Russian celebration was on, the Bolshoy Ice Dome a wall of sound.

The officials never really explained to the crowd why the goal was disallowed – even Bylsma would say he was never given the reason. The goal was disallowed because the American net was slightly – SLIGHTLY – off its moorings, having been crashed into by Jonathan Quick himself. That can be enough to disallow the goal. But, as we will see, it’s not that simple.

The disallowed goal did not set off anger, at least at first. There was no official protest, no obvious fury even in the stands. Instead, it set off a massive wave of confusion. Nobody seemed to know what had just happened. Some thought the officials had ruled the puck never went in the net. Some thought there must have been some sort of technical ruling.

The fury would come out later.

RELATED: Russian players think Quick intentionally dislodged goal

The amazing game went into overtime, and then it went into a shootout. Most hockey purists despise shootouts, and they are right. It’s a gimmicky way to end great games; not unlike ending the World Series with a home run derby or an NBA finals with a three-point shootout or a chess world championship match with a quick game of checkers.

But, it’s hard not to admit: While a shootout may be cheat entertainment, it is entertaining. The best goal scorers go one-on-one with the goalie. That means every single play ends one of three ways: With a brilliant goal, a brilliant save, or a titanic blunder. The Olympic shootout adds another element – in the Olympics, if the score is still tied after the first three players on each team go, then the shootout continues until there’s a winner. And a team can send the same person out again and again and again endlessly.

That is how the United States met T.J. Oshie on Saturday. Oshie in his real life is a forward for the St. Louis Blues, but on Saturday played the role of American superhero. Five straight times, the United States sent him out there to either win the game or keep the overtime going. The United States has a lot of great goal scorers. Bylsma never seemed to consider any of them but Oshie.

Oshie has a distinctive shootout style. While most players take the puck and go in something of a straight line – building up some speed to make the goalie feel threatened – Oshie at first skates slowly and aimlessly, as if he’s looking for someone to ask for the next couples skate. He winds around, and winds around; the mission seems to be to make the goalie move first. He does this with hypnotic grace.

Here’s how Oshie’s five key shootout shots went.

VIDEO: Watch all of T.J. Oshie’s shootout goals

No. 1: With a chance to win the game, he slowly moved in on Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, made a sudden move to his left that left the net wide open. He flicked his shot over the goal for a miss. “Even when he didn’t score,” Bylsma would say, “it looked like he would.”

No. 2: With Oshie needing to make the shot to keep the Americans in the game, he glided in – so slowly he did not seem to moving his legs – and he waited for Bobrovsky to make his move. Bobrovsky did. Oshie slid the puck through his legs.

No. 3: Again he needed a goal to keep the game alive, and this time he came in very close to the goalie, pulled some kind of shoulder and elbow fake that made Bobrovsky go down, and then he flipped the puck over him for the goal.

No. 4: This time for the win, Oshie again thoroughly faked out Bobrovsky and seemed to have scored when suddenly – perhaps even luckily – Bobrovsky’s stick connected with the puck, deflecting it over the net.

No. 5: The game-winner, one more slow approach, one more time waiting for Bobrovsky to make the first move, one more shot through the legs. And the Americans had won. They raced on the ice to celebrate.

And so an astonishing game ended. Only, no. It didn’t end. It still hasn’t ended. It won’t end for a long time. Almost immediately after the game, there was word that Russian defenseman Slava Voynov, who played with Quick for the Los Angeles Kings, told Russian reporters that Quick has a habit of dislodging nets when attackers are buzzing around. “I play with him,” Voynov said. “I know that’s his style.”

Quick’s response: “I didn’t know until after I saw – I turned around and saw the net was off. It was a lucky break.”

That “lucky break” theme didn’t really play in Russia. For one thing, nobody seemed sure the net being slightly off its moorings should have mattered. In the National Hockey League, the goal almost certainly would have been allowed because the net’s slight misplacement had no bearing on the goal itself.

Then Ovechkin pointed out that even if the net was off its moorings, it was clearly knocked off by the Americans. So there should have been a penalty called on Quick. The Russian head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said the officials had made a mistake but pleaded, “What can I do?”

VIDEO: Al Michaels, Doc Emrick discuss game’s impact

And then came the media types – one asked why an American, Brad Meier, was one of the officials – and then came Russian television to show the goal over and over (they just showed it AGAIN) along with Putin’s reproachful look. And these Russian Olympics have a full-on sports controversy.

The Russian goal, I suspect, should have counted. Here in Russia, where there’s soul-crushing pressure on the hockey team to win gold, that no-goal probably will be remembered forever, much in the same way that in America we always remember the final three seconds of the 1972 Olympic gold medal basketball game, when the Soviets were given repeated chances to win and, eventually, did.

But this one IS different. That Olympic basketball game was for gold. There were no second chances for the American team (who refused their silver medals). This, on the other hand, was just the second game for both teams; the game really wasn’t for much more than pride and maybe a little placement down the Olympic road.

The point is, instead of ending Russia’s quest, it just made the quest more compelling. A second meeting between Russia and the U.S. might explode the entire sports world. Yes, in Russia and in the United States, as my kids like to say, the Olympics are so on.

Nathan Chen ushers in new era with record-breaking nationals short program

ST PAUL, MN - JANUARY 24: Nathan Chen looks on after competing in the Men's Free Skate at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championship on January 24, 2016 at Xcel Energy Center in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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KANSAS CITY — Nathan Chen is in position to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion in 51 years and, as he said Friday night, help put the U.S. “back on the map” in men’s skating.

Chen, 17 and already an Olympic medal contender, tallied 106.39 points in the short program, taking Jeremy Abbott‘s U.S. Championships record of 99.86 from 2014 off the books.

He carries a whopping 17.72-point lead into Sunday’s free skate (4 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Chen, a past U.S. novice and junior champion, landed two quadruple jumps and continued his rise in a breakout senior season after taking silver at the Grand Prix Final last month.

He said after his skate that he’s ready to handle the tag of Olympic medal contender and to go for the world title in Helsinki in March.

“I’m able to stack up against these top-level skaters,” said Chen, who beat the reigning Olympic and world champions in the Grand Prix Final free skate. “That’s something I’ve strived for my whole life. I don’t think it’s something I should necessarily be afraid of, something that I’ve wanted my whole life.”

Chen leads the U.S. Championships over a member of the old guard, Ross Miner, a 25-year-old who made three straight U.S. podiums from 2011-13 but none since.

Vincent Zhou, who turned 16 three months ago, was third, but within .82 of Miner. Full results are here.

“Nathan Chen has always been a few steps ahead of me,” said Zhou, who won the 2013 U.S. junior title and finished fifth at the 2016 World Junior Championships, taking two years off in between to recover from a torn meniscus in his right knee and focus on school. “When he was intermediate, I was just a little preliminary admiring him. Now it feels amazing to start closing the gap.”

The U.S. will send two men to the world championships in two months, selected after Sunday’s free skate, and they likely won’t be the usual names. Neither Chen nor Zhou has been to senior worlds, and Miner’s last appearance was 2013.

The 2016 U.S. champion, Adam Rippon, is not competing this week due to a season-ending broken foot. The 2015 U.S. champion, Jason Brown, is in fourth place, 8.62 behind third-place Zhou. Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, fell twice and tumbled to 12th place Friday.

“It just wasn’t a good day,” Aaron said. “It’s not me.”

There are no more pressure-filled world championships than those one year before the Olympics, where skaters earn Olympic entries for their countries.

“That would definitely be a massive step up that I haven’t prepared for in the fullest, but it would be an absolute honor if I were to be able to go,” Zhou said. “But, for now, I’m setting more of my sights on junior worlds.”

Hopes will mostly be riding with Chen, who has a shot to become the first U.S. men’s medalist at an Olympics or worlds since Evan Lysacek took the 2010 Olympic title.

“We’re pushing back up to where we should be,” Chen said of the U.S. men. “We kind of sunk a little bit, but I think me and some of the other skaters coming up at this event will help bring the U.S. back on the map.”

The U.S. Championships continue Saturday with the pairs free skate, free dance and women’s free skate, with coverage starting at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

MORE: Ashley Wagner ‘sick’ of hearing about her age

Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen — 106.39
2. Ross Miner — 88.67
3. Vincent Zhou — 87.85
4. Jason Brown — 79.23
5. Grant Hochstein — 79.10

Maia, Alex Shibutani break U.S. Championships short dance record

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KANSAS CITY — Maia and Alex Shibutani broke the U.S. Championships short dance record held by Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White on Friday.

The defending national champion Shibutanis tallied 82.42 points at Sprint Center, easily taking down the Davis-and-White mark of 80.69 set at the 2014 U.S. Championships.

Scores have been higher this season overall, leading to records in international competitions, too.

“Didn’t know it was a record,” Maia Shibutani said. “It was our strongest performance of the short dance so far this season. That’s exactly what we want to be showing right now before we head to the second half of the season.”

The Shibutanis lead by 2.46 points over 2015 U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates going into Saturday’s free dance (3 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, three-time U.S. bronze medalists, are again third. Full results are here.

U.S. Figure Skating will send three dance couples to the world championships in two months. The Shibutanis, Chock and Bates and Hubbell and Donohue were those three couples the past two seasons.

The U.S. is the world power in ice dance, impressively rising during Davis and White’s break since Sochi.

The Shibutanis took silver and Chock and Bates took bronze at the 2016 World Championships. Hubbell and Donohue made it three U.S. couples in the top six at worlds for the first time since 1955.

Chock and Bates had been the top U.S. couple since the Sochi Olympics up until last year’s U.S. Championships. The Shibutanis have topped Chock and Bates in their last three competitions together.

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule

Short Dance
1. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani — 82.42
2. Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 79.96
3. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — 79.72
4. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker — 72.60
5. Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit — 67.17