, , , , , , , , , , , ,

SOCHI, Russia _ After the United States beat Russia 3-2 Saturday in an instant classic of a hockey game, a Russian journalist asked me in broken English: “What’s a T.J. Oshie?”

After Team USA's shootout win, everyone in Russia knows T.J. Oshie's name.

After Team USA’s shootout win, everyone in Russia knows T.J. Oshie’s name.

If Oshie, a forward for the St. Louis Blues, wasn’t a household name in Sochi, Moscow, St. Petersburg, or anywhere else in Russia, he certainly is now. Team USA Coach Dan Bylsma made what seemed like a strange decision to use Oshie over and over again in the shootout that gave the American squad the victory.

Oshie responded by scoring four times over eight rounds, including the decisive goal past Russian and Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, last season’s Vezina Trophy winner as the National Hockey League’s best goalie.

Oshie, who is part Ojibwe (Chippewa) Native/First Nations, was a little surprised about his shootout encores  and a tad nervous about repeatedly going up against Bobrovsky in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin and more than 11,000 decidedly pro-Russian fans inside the Winter Games’ Bolshoy Ice Dome.

“It was pretty nerve-racking out there,” Oshie told reporters afterwards. “I did (feel pressure) a little bit, but then the puck hits your stick and you start staking. It’s just you and the goalie. I was fortunate to keep (Bobrovsky) guessing and Quickie (USA goaltender Jonathan Quick) did his job great.”

If Saturday’s game was a National Hockey League contest, Bylsma couldn’t have called Oshie’s number so many times. Under NHL rules, a player can only be used once in a shootout. In international hockey, a player can be used as often as the coach desires.

Still, Bylsma’s shootout strategy seemed odd given the offensive firepower and creativity on the U.S. bench. Shifty Chicago Blackhawks sniper Patrick Kane was sitting there. And slick Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel can pick a corner or two.

But Bylsma, coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Team USA’s brain trust knew something about Oshie: he’s an absolute shootout assassin. He’s never scored more than 19 goals a year in his six NHL seasons. But he’s 25 for 46 in shootouts in his career and boasts a 54.3 career shootout percentage, second among active NHL players with at least 20 attempts.

 T.J. Oshie became Team USA's  designated shooter against Russia.

T.J. Oshie became Team USA’s designated shooter against Russia.

“T.J. has been exceptional in the shootout this year and throughout his career,” Bylsma said. “Once we got to the fourth shooter, and just the quality moves he had even when he did miss, we were going to ride him out.”

Oshie was reportedly picked for the US team in part because of his shootout success. American League baseball teams have designated hitters. Team USA wanted a designated shooter, and Oshie is it.

“I was just nervous for him. At some point you think ‘Does he have any moves left?'” said Team USA captain Zach Parise, a forward for the Minnesota Wild. “But he did a good job. He always went in the same way from right to left and maybe that started getting into the goalie’s head a little bit. For someone to keep scoring in a shootout like that, it’s pretty impressive.”

Shootouts aren’t everyone’s bowl of borsht. Some of the best NHL scorers, for whatever reason, don’t like participating in them. New Jersey Devils forward Jaromir Jagr, who’s playing for his native Czech Republic in Sochi, eschews shootouts.

Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin sometimes passes on them, too. He was on the Russian bench as forward Pavel Datsuyk of the Detroit Red Wings and former NHLer Ilya Kovalchuk faced the Los Angeles Kings’ Quick in the shootout.

“Of course it was hard to pick the players for the shootout because we have players like (Carolina Hurricanes’ Alexander) Semin, who shoots well, and (Alexander) Radulov, but overall, I think that both Datsuyk and Kovalchuk were good enough and had confidence,” Team Russia Head Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov said after the game.