-- SOCHI, Russia -- It began with breathless reports of broken-down hotel rooms, roving packs of dogs and the threat of terrorist attacks, and ended with more than two weeks of nonstop hockey, drama and, in some cases, heartbreak leading up to a second straight Canadian gold medal.
Here's a look at the Olympic hockey tournament highlights (and lowlights):
Big ice a neutralizer
By my count, I saw all or parts of 22 hockey games through the course of the tournament. Some were compelling, such as the U.S.-Russia and Finland-Canada games in the preliminary round, both of which went to extra time. But unlike Vancouver, when it seemed as though every game had an edge to it or some sort of dramatic twist, this simply wasn't the case in Sochi. Part of that is a function of the bigger ice, which promotes a more static game, especially from countries that don't have the talent pool of the traditional hockey nations. The lack of consistent high drama is also a function of a down cycle for teams such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both of which had disappointing tournaments.
The Russian flameout
We simply didn't see this collapse coming. We figured after the doldrums in the quarterfinals four years ago in Canada that the Russians would have learned something about team building and handling pressure. Nope. Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin endured miserable tournaments, failing to score after their goals in the first preliminary game. The coaching was suspect, and you have to conclude that smashing together the KHL and NHL styles simply doesn't work in terms of keeping Russia in the hunt with the Swedes, Canadians, Finns and Americans. Can you say overhaul?
Speaking of wacky coaches, Alois Hadamczik of the Czech Republic sure didn't make many friends back home with his bizarre selection of the team and curious lineup decisions that included benching -- as in not even dressing -- Winnipeg Jets netminder Ondrej Pavelec for the team's opening game of the tournament. You get what you asked for as the Czechs nearly blew a 4-0 lead in their qualification game against Slovakia and were waxed 5-2 by the U.S. in the quarterfinals.
Pitfalls of partying
Not a good tournament for a handful of NHL players, including Ovechkin and Malkin. But for straight-out embarrassment, Austrians Thomas Vanek, Michael Raffl and Michael Grabner were reportedly seen out partying with teammates to the wee hours the day before their qualification game against Slovenia. The Austrians laid an egg, losing 4-0, and the players publicly apologized. If you're an NHL GM, what do you make of Vanek, given that he couldn't be bothered to prepare properly for an Olympic elimination game? Is he worth a first-round pick? Just another headache for New York Islanders GM Garth Snow, but sometimes you get what you deserve, no?
When it rains, it snows
As mentioned, not a good Olympics for the Islanders. The Vanek situation has to hurt his value leading up to the March 5 trade deadline. And then there was the loss of captain John Tavares to a knee injury. Snow then embarrassed himself by popping off about how the International Olympic Committee or International Ice Hockey Federation should be reimbursing Islanders fans for tickets they purchased, now that they won't be seeing Tavares in action. And here we thought it was a team game. Snow might look to GMs Ken Holland, Dale Tallon and Jarmo Kekalainen, who also lost players but didn't embarrass themselves whining about things that could happen at any point in an NHL season. And in a World Cup of Hockey, for that matter.
A breakup in the making?
Speaking of injuries, there seemed to be more in Sochi than four years ago in Vancouver. Along with Tavares, Henrik Zetterberg, Aleksander Barkov and Mats Zuccarello left the tournament with injuries while Fedor Tyutin will miss time with an ankle injury after playing for Russia. All of this will no doubt be something the owners talk about when the NHL discusses whether to carry on its Olympic relationship in four years' time in South Korea. As noted, we can't complain about injuries in the Olympics and then rush into a World Cup of Hockey in 2015, which is likely going to happen just because the league and the players make money off that event.
A (Red) Wing and a prayer
Inspiring? How about Pavel Datsyuk's heroic turn for the Russians? It's clear the Detroit star wasn't at 100 percent, but he was by far the Russians' best player in what was a crushingly disappointing tournament for his team. It will be interesting to see how effective he is when the NHL schedule picks up later this week.
Speaking of inspiring, the Slovenians were the darlings of the Olympic tournament. Playing in their first Olympics, they upset Slovakia in the preliminary round, played Russia tough and then upended the partying Austrians in the qualification game. Led by Anze Kopitar, the team's only NHL player, the Slovenians were a treat to deal with and a nice reminder of the magic that is possible in the Olympics.
How good was Drew Doughty? If Doughty doesn't score, Team Canada probably wouldn't have ended up in the gold-medal game.
No goals, no problems
What kind of odds would you have gotten if you had bet that Canada would score just 14 goals through the first five games of this tournament and that six of those would come against the Austrians?
Shoot, that was good
Lots of drama through the medal games, but for sheer buzz in the building, nothing topped the Americans' shootout victory over Russia. T.J. Oshie, Datsyuk, Jonathan Quick and Sergei Bobrovsky put on a show for a rocking Bolshoy Ice Dome crowd that included President Vladimir Putin. Unfortunately for the Americans, that was as good as it got in Sochi.
Best line after the game? Ryan Suter joking with a couple reporters that Oshie's fame was so great he was the new Mike Eruzione.
Red, white and boo
Biggest letdown in the tournament: The same Americans, who looked like world-beaters for four games and then shot blanks in their two most important contests, getting shut out by Canada 1-0 in the semifinals and coming completely unraveled in a 5-0 loss to the Finns in the bronze-medal game.
Grumpiest man in the mixed zone? Latvia's Sandis Ozolinsh.
A dogged dude
Mixed-zone favorite? David Backes. Whether he was talking about adopting stray Russian dogs or describing his linemates on the Meat Line (he was beef, Dustin Brown pork and Ryan Callahan chicken), Backes delivered the goods on and off the ice.
Graying of the Olympics
How about the old men of the Games? Even if Jaromir Jagr was in a bad mood the whole time, to see the Czech great, Teemu Selanne and Daniel Alfredsson embracing what will surely be their final Olympic competition was a treat. Selanne was especially magical in his bronze-medal turn for the Finns, reminding us that there simply is no competition like the Olympics.
At the other end of the spectrum, impressive work from youngsters Olli Maatta (although his turnover did lead to a goal in the semifinals against Sweden), Cam Fowler and Kevin Shattenkirk. Breakout tournament? Mikael Granlund, the offensive star for the Finns, who were without Valtteri Filppula, Mikko Koivu and later Barkov. Granlund, who had three goals and four assists, was a catalyst for the Finns' fourth medal since the NHL started to attend these shindigs, in 1998.
Food for not
Organization of this tournament was top-notch from every perspective. Well, unless you don't happen to like freeze-dried coffee, which was available free in the media areas. And biscuits. Over/under on the number of freeze-dried packets and biscuits inhaled? 500.
Along for the ride
As has been oft-reported, the athletes, and specifically the hockey players, loved this tournament. Was there a better sight on the often spectacularly sunny days than the players wheeling up on their bicycles to prepare for practices or games?
Swede and sour
The most puzzling lineup decision from a team that won a medal was with Phoenix Coyotes and Swedish defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who dressed for games but did not get on the ice in the latter stages of the tournament after Alexander Edler finished serving out his suspension dating back to last spring's world championship. Hard to swallow, although Ekman-Larsson should be well-rested for the Yotes as they try to shoulder their way into the playoffs.
Goalies gone bad
It was a tough tournament for some high-profile NHL netminders. Jaroslav Halak was yanked at one point by Slovakia and did not have his best tournament, giving up eight goals on 48 shots. Semyon Varlamov was pulled in the Russians' quarterfinal loss to the Finns. Both are, pending trade-deadline activity, going to be crucial to St. Louis' and Colorado's playoff hopes. Pavelec was at first a healthy scratch by the wacky Czechs but was ordinary in their quarterfinal loss to the U.S. and replaced in the second period. Pavelec's mates in Winnipeg will need him to bounce back if they're going to stay in the hunt in the Western Conference playoff race.
Goalies gone good
On the flip side, Quick was excellent for Team USA, which bodes well for a Los Angeles Kings team that is in a dogfight to secure a playoff spot in the West. Henrik Lundqvist was his steady, brilliant self for the Swedes, but it was Carey Price who showed he can play with the big boys, leading Canada to the gold medal and allowing just three goals throughout the tournament when it looked like goaltending might be a potential weakness for the Canadians.
Talk about inspiration, a handful of Canadian women left a note encouraging their male countrymen to success against the U.S. in the semifinals a night after they had erased a late 2-0 U.S. lead in the women's gold-medal game, upending the favored Americans in overtime. The note, written by Shannon Szabados, Brianne Jenner and Hayley Wickenheiser, was found hanging in Canada's locker room: "Tonight is yours. Own the moment. We are proof that every minute matters. The podium is reserved for the brave. Earn every inch, dictate the pace. Go get em! From the Girls! :)" The Canadians took that to heart in playing a near-perfect game against the U.S.
Laurels are for losers
One of our favorite lines of the Olympics came courtesy of Swedish coach Par Marts, who was an assistant when the Swedes won gold in 1994. "Of course I remember it," he said, "but I'm a dreamer. I'm looking more ahead and looking for dreams than talking old memories. I don't like that. I don't even know who we played in that Olympics. I'm not interested in this. I want [to look] forward. That's my style." And who doesn't love a dreamer -- especially at the Olympics.