If before the semifinals of the Olympic men’s hockey tournament, you were asked which team would cruise into the gold medal game, smart money would be on Canada, right? They had home ice, were the favorites and had put up 15 combined goals in the first two elimination games. However, it was the plucky United States team that glided its way into the gold medal game.
The Americans blasted Finland, coming out firing in the first period to the tune of six goals before the game was 13 minutes old. Team USA held serve the rest of the game, allowing a late goal on a deflection but still solidifying at least a second-place finish with a thorough 6-1 win.
To consider yourself surprised by anything the U.S. team is doing at this point of the tournament means you haven’t been paying attention. Before the tournament, making the statement that Team USA would have a chance to win gold would have been considered an unwise endeavor. But, after watching the Americans take care of business against Switzerland and Norway in pool play and then come up with the unexpected win over Canada to finish the preliminary round, it was clear this team was better than anyone outside the dressing room expected.
As it stands today, Team USA is the only undefeated team in the tournament. They have never trailed over their five games, scoring early in every game except the quarterfinal against the Swiss. A glance at all of the pre-Olympic stories gave the United States a chance at a bronze medal if Ryan Miller stood on his head and the U.S. got lucky. Those two things have happened, but a funny thing occurred along the way – it became clear that the Red, White and Blue were not just a one-trick, goaltender pony. This team was put together almost perfectly. The top-six forwards bring the skill. At the bottom of the forward depth chart is a collection of bangers and grinders who make life difficult for the opposing team. On defense, the Americans are not the quickest but they do play physical and make sure that Miller has a clear line on almost every shot. The expected script heading into Vancouver was to win close, low-scoring games. Instead, the United States has shown the ability to open it up and in turn is much more dangerous and ready for prime time than anyone expected.
In yesterday’s semifinal against Finland, Team USA made Miikka Kiprusoff look like a junior varsity netminder rather than the usual world-beater that he is. I was texting with two buddies during the game and around the third goal, both of them asked why Kipper was even on the team. I explained that he was one of the best goalies in the NHL and that the performance we were watching was a huge shock. By the time I finished that text, Patrick Kane had scored Team USA’s fourth goal – leading to Kiprusoff pulling himself.
The weird thing about watching that first period was that the U.S. was the ones who made Finland look bad. It wasn’t as if the U.S. was scoring soft goals. They were just pushing the issue and keeping pressure on. The Americans capitalized on power plays, and the skill guys finally came alive. Except for the quarterfinal against the Swiss, Team USA had been relying on timely goals from the third and fourth lines. In yesterday’s semifinal, Zach Parise continued to come alive and then the dormant Patrick Kane scored twice in 2:23 to turn a 3-0 lead into a 5-0 advantage. For the Americans to complete this run they are on, they need Kane to be hot again on Sunday. He is maybe the only forward on Team USA who would get top-guy minutes on Team Canada and needs to play like that guy in the gold medal game.
The best way to describe what happened in the first period yesterday comes via my old roommate Sam. After the U.S. scored their sixth goal, he sent me a text message saying, “Who set the ability level on this game to easy?” That is exactly what it looked like. It was almost like head coach Ron Wilson set the level on a video game to easy and then went out and started lighting the lamp. Not only was the United States skating circles around the Finns in the attack zone, they were keeping a veteran team away from scoring chances in the defensive end. Finland had four shots on goal after one period and 11 after two. I am honestly not sure which is a bigger surprise, Team USA scoring as often as they have or the way they have shutdown opposing teams. The United States has allowed only six goals over five games. Three of those came against Canada last Sunday. That is how you win a hockey tournament.
Compare the relative ease with which Team USA has advanced to the final to the way Canada has found its way. Despite its 5-1 record in the tournament, Canada can be described as a Jekyll and Hyde type team. Three times in the Olympics the Canadians have scored at least seven goals. In the other three games, they have scored three. If the Canadians are able to come out and score a few quick goals, they seem to roll. If they struggle early, either going scoreless for an extended period of time or giving up the first goal things get dicey. It appears as if the key to beating Canada is taking the game to them. Team USA scored early and never seemed phased by the pressure in the game last week. The Swiss team was not afraid and took Canada to a shootout in pool play, taking an important point away from Canada. Last night in the semifinal, even though Canada staked itself to a 3-0 lead, they were a crossbar away from needing overtime against Slovakia.
What to make of this is that Canada needs a cushion to alleviate the pressure on themselves. Everybody from the Prime Minister of Canada to Wayne Gretzky to ice fishermen in Moose Jaw had started celebrating the gold medal when Vancouver was awarded the games. To be a part of the team at these Olympics is a blessing and a curse until the moment Canada wins the gold. As excited as the fans are before a game, they don’t seem to get too into the game until the Canadians score and even then aren’t content until it is 4-0. Expect something similar tomorrow. Leading up to the puck drop, the crazy Canadian fans will be out of their minds. But if those ungrateful Canadian players don’t score three times in the first seven minutes, the tension will mount and the pressure will start to settle on the shoulders of the 23 players on the bench. They do not want to be the team that lets down an entire country. Will that be enough to overcome an apparent team of destiny?
On paper, Canada has better players top to bottom. Out last night, a friend of mine had trouble naming which NHL team most of the players on Team USA play for. Besides Chris Drury, there is not one household name on Team USA (at least before the Olympics started). Canada has all the stars and would be the choice to win almost every time the two sides play.
The question is did Team USA use up its “one out of ten” last Sunday? Unlike the 1980 Miracle on Ice where the U.S. didn’t have to play Russia again, this team has the monster back on the schedule. However, that win on Sunday may have been the catalyst to this incarnation of Team USA truly believing they belong in the discussion of best teams in the world. Remember, that win on Sunday was not a fluke. The Americans outplayed Canada early and pounced on the chances afforded. Canada did come back and make it a game and give the U.S. fits late, but the United States did not falter. If the U.S. had squandered that game and was coming in with a bad taste in its mouth and its last memory of playing Canada was a choke job, this game would have all the makings of a blow out. Instead, the U.S. has the momentum and the experience on its side.
As it always does in hockey, the ultimate deciding factor will be goaltending. In the first U.S.-Canada game, the Canadians were done in by Martin Brodeur. He coughed up the puck and gave the U.S. second chances which they capitalized on. Since then, Canada has gone with Roberto Luongo in net. He has won three games in the medal round but has allowed seven goals along the way. The one thing he has not done is give up the easy one and hurt his team. Whether or not the bad luck which has followed goalies playing the U.S. so far hits Luongo remains to be seen. In the other net will be the start of this tournament, Ryan Miller. He has allowed just five goals in five games and has come up with 103 saves. He held off Canada’s potent offense late in the game last week and was just superb. He seems to be enjoying these games as much as anyone on the U.S. team and is thriving off the situation. It would be a huge surprise if he doesn’t come up big tomorrow.
The first goal tomorrow may be the biggest of the Olympics. If the U.S. gets it and opens up the haze of failure over the Canadian side of the arena, they could get another quickly and not look back. An early Canadian goal eases some of the anxiety and could get the much-better Canadian players playing with comfort and ease. My guess is that, just like in 2002, the hometown team is denied.
MVP: Ryan Miller, duh. He will be called upon to make 35-40 saves and will do so.
Watch Out For: Chris Drury. He has had a shamrock in his jockstrap since Little League. All he does is win and he will do something big in this game. It may not be a goal, but he will block a shot or win a faceoff that seals the win. Another guy to keep an eye on his Brooks Orpik. He may be the only B.C. player I enjoy watching in the world. He is the most physical defenseman the U.S. has and his ability to punish players in the defensive end will be important.