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Olympics: US men edge Russians in ice hockey thriller, but skaters fail again

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SOCHI, Russia - 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.

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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.

The Kremlin said Putin would visit the 23-year-old, who is now conscious, after her operation.

Komissarova suffered the injury during training at the PSX Olympic skicross venue at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. She was taken to Krasnaya Polyana Hospital Number 8, which was specially built for the Olympics, where doctors decided to operate.

"During one of her training runs, Maria injured her spine," team head of press Mikhail Verzhba said. "It is a serious injury."

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 metres short track speed skating, and "Russian Rocket" Alexander Tretiakov won Russia's first Olympic gold in skeleton.

CONTRASTING FORTUNES

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."

The excitement on the eighth day of competition in Sochi typified the atmosphere that has taken hold, banishing memories of a buildup to the Games overshadowed by threats of Islamist militant attacks and concerns over Russia's human rights record.

U.S. President Barack Obama decided not to come to Sochi and, following criticism of Putin's stance on gay rights, sent a delegation including gay officials.

There have also been accusations of widespread corruption and profligacy surrounding the Olympics, which some estimates say cost $51 billion, making them the most expensive ever held.

Putin has dismissed those charges, and some Russian officials put the price tag much lower.

Despite frustration at what Putin recently called the West's Cold War mentality towards 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.

SUITS OR SKATERS?

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.

ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE

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 favourites Norway could only manage fifth. Charlotte Kalla produced an astonishing comeback leg to earn the win.

Austria's ski jumping team, surprisingly shut out of the normal hill final, hopes to restore honour in the large hill event where Poland's Kamil Stoch will be the man to beat.

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