The Americans didn’t believe in miracles. They just believed.
And they pulled off the biggest Olympic hockey upset since the Miracle on Ice, stunning Canada 5-3 on Sunday to advance to the quarterfinals of an already mixed-up tournament.
Brian Rafalski scored two goals, Ryan Miller held off a flurry of shots and the Americans quieted a raucous, pro-Canada crowd that came to cheer its dream team, only to see it upstaged by a bunch of unproven kids. One day short of the 30th anniversary of the country’s greatest hockey victory — the unfathomable win over the Soviet Union in Lake Placid — these underrated Americans were faster, more disciplined and more determined than Canada’s collection of all-stars.
"We know we can beat anybody now," Rafalski said.
Canada outshot the United States 45-23 yet couldn’t badly dent Miller, the goalie the Americans felt could best stand up to all of Canada’s might. He did just that, making 42 saves in the victory of a lifetime.
"It’s probably one of the biggest games I’ve ever played," Miller said. "When things happened we responded. We didn’t get nervous or anxious. We kept playing."
When Ryan Kesler scored in the final minute, the few U.S. fans who managed to get seats proudly waved their American flags, all their red, white and blue suddenly visible.
"You look up and everything’s red and white — so few American flags" at the start, said U.S. coach Ron Wilson, who also led the 1996 team that upset Canada in the World Cup. "We expected a hostile environment. The intensity of the game helped, too."
When 2006 gold medalist Sweden beat Finland 3-0, the United States was assured of being top-seeded in Wednesday’s quarterfinals, something almost no one predicted when the tournament began. Sweden is second, followed by Russia and Finland.
Canada, the gold-medal favorite, was expected to coast into the medal round. But now, after nearly losing to Switzerland and being outplayed on home ice by the Americans, it must win a play-in game Tuesday against Germany to reach the quarterfinals.
After that, Canada likely will meet Russia, a matchup that wasn’t expected until the gold-medal game.
"Just like everybody in this tournament, we’re playing to survive," coach Mike Babcock said. "If you lose, you go home."
The Canadians still could win a gold medal, but now face a much tougher road that would include an additional game and a more difficult quarterfinal-round opponent.
"We’re here to be the last ones standing and we’re still alive," goalie Martin Brodeur said. "We’re throwing 45 shots at these goalies and they are making stops facing forward, backward, sideways. Eventually we’ll be more successful."
Chris Drury, a former Little League World Series star, and Jamie Langenbrunner scored to put the U.S. up 4-2 and hold off a relentless late surge by Canada that included Sidney Crosby’s power play goal with 3:09 remaining.
Miller made an exceptional save on Rick Nash’s shot from the slot with two minutes left to preserve it, and Kesler put it away by swiping in an empty-net goal with one hand with 45 seconds remaining.
"He made some really key saves in the third period and was the difference," Canada forward Eric Staal said, referring to Miller, the Buffalo Sabres goalie.
Rafalski, Langenbrunner and Drury are three of the older, steadying hands on one of the youngest U.S. Olympic teams in history, one that averages 5 years younger per man than the 2006 team that didn’t medal in Turin.
"It’s great for our young players to get a win of this caliber against that type of team," Rafalski said. "Going forward, it sets the bar very high for us. It lets those guys know that we can possibly win this thing."
The U.S., supposedly a tier below the Canadians, Russians and Swedes, got exactly the start it wanted. Rafalski’s slap shot from the right point 41 seconds into the game deflected off Crosby’s stick and past Brodeur, the best goalie of his generation but not the better goalie in the game.
"We wanted a good start but that was better than expected for sure," forward Patrick Kane said.
Staal tied it by deflecting Brent Seabrook’s shot from the right circle at 8:53 — one of 19 that Canada took to America’s six in an up-tempo first period.
Just when it appeared Canada would blunt America’s early momentum, Rafalski scored 22 seconds after Staal’s goal following a rare misplay by Brodeur. The goalie threw the puck up the middle of the ice into traffic, Rafalski swooped in and snapped off a shot that a screened Brodeur apparently didn’t see. It was Rafalski’s fourth goal on only six shots in three games, or as many as the defenseman has all season with the Detroit Red Wings.
The Canadians spent most of the opening 10 minutes of the second period in the U.S. zone, getting a tying goal from Dany Heatley — his fourth in three games — but Miller gave up no others.
The U.S., 3-0 with three wins in regulation, got the lead back when Drury made it 3-2 with 16:46 gone in the second. Drury took a shot from the far edge of the right circle and, after David Backes and Bobby Ryan missed followups, he skated in and finally got the puck past a prone Brodeur.
Minutes before, Brodeur — the NHL career victories and shutouts leader — took a shot off his facemask, causing him to remove it and examine it for damage.
Now, his team will be doing the same thing.
While it was only a preliminary-round game, tickets were scalped for four digits, and fans wearing Canada’s distinctive red maple-leaf jerseys lined up for hours waiting to be admitted.
"You just can’t beat it. It was fun," said Paul Stastny, whose father, Peter, opposed that 1980 team while playing for Czechoslovakia. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime atmosphere."
Hockey is more than a way of life in Canada. It is part of the nation’s very fabric, and the country’s 33 million residents embrace their team with a passion – and agonize with it, too. Early estimates were that half the country was watching, and this performance won’t do much to calm the nation’s nerves.
The Americans took a page out of 1960 by wearing uniforms nearly identical to those of the gold-medal winning team at Squaw Valley. The U.S. hadn’t beaten Canada in the Olympics since winning 2-1 in those games.
U.S. team officials ringed the team’s dressing room with motivational messages, like "Be Brilliant in the Basics" as a reminder that Olympic games are won with team play, good goaltending and attention to detail, not necessarily by the team with the biggest names. They got all the above.
And the Miracle on Ice team? There’s links to this team: Ryan Suter, who had two assists, is the son of 1980 defenseman Bob Suter. And defenseman Brooks Orpik, steady throughout, is named for Herb Brooks, the 1980 coach.