The goaltending couldn’t haven’t been better in the U.S. defeat of much-hyped Canada. The timing couldn’t be more perfect, either.
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Now, the latest hockey team to capture the American public imagination’s needs only to write a happy ending to this success story in the making, just like the 1960 and 1980 teams did.
Winning the game they supposedly couldn’t against a virtual NHL all-star team that Canadians believed was ordained for gold, the Americans’ unexpected 5-3 victory Sunday advanced them to Wednesday’s quarterfinals as the top-seeded team.
This game wasn’t for a medal. Canada wasn’t eliminated; the Americans are assured of nothing but a bye before they play the Switzerland-Belarus winner. Even so, this was a magical moment for U.S. hockey that, at least in the Olympics, hasn’t been matched since the Miracle on Ice in 1980.
“You just can’t beat it. It was fun,” Paul Stastny said. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime atmosphere.”
Fittingly, Monday is the 30th anniversary of the United States’ monumental upset against the Soviet Union’s supposedly unbeatable all-world team in Lake Placid.
A gold medal by the Americans in the Vancouver Games wouldn’t be nearly as improbable but, only a week ago, the United States was widely considered to be at a level below the Canadians, Russians and Swedes. That was before the Americans won all three round-robin games in regulation.
“We’ve come a long way and coming into this tournament we were probably considered underdogs, but we have a good team and a good mix of players,” forward Patrick Kane said.
As so often happens in Olympics, the teams that mesh the fastest often are those that advance the furthest. The four U.S. goals Sunday came from their most-experienced players: Brian Rafalski scored twice and Jamie Langenbrunner and Chris Drury also had goals.
“Hopefully it provides the confidence we need to keep moving forward but emotionally we need to make sure we are not going to get too high,” goalie Ryan Miller said after making 42 saves, not all of them easy.
While the talent-packed Canadians are frantically searching for a linemate to go with Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash, the Americans already seem to be coming together.
The team is one of the youngest to represent the United States in the Olympics. Though the average age of the players is 26, the team has speed and cohesion, youth with a dash with experience, confidence and, unlike the Canadians, no great expectations to drag them down.
And, oh, yes, goaltending. Canada’s Martin Brodeur may be the best in the world but he wasn’t the better goalie on the ice.
“He’s definitely the main reason why we won,” Kesler said of Miller. “He gave us a chance to win.”
There are connections between this U.S. team and the Miracle team of three decades ago. According to Jim Craig, the Miracle on Ice goalie, Miller wore a shamrock on his mask in honor of Craig. There are other links to ’80, too. Ryan Suter, who had two assists, is the son of ’80 defenseman Bob Suter. And defenseman Brooks Orpik was named for ’80 coach Herb Brooks.
Everywhere, it seemed, there were tie-ins to America’s past Olympic successes. The players wore uniforms patterned after those of the ’60 Olympic gold-medal team from Squaw Valley that, until Sunday, was the last to beat Canada in the Olympics.
So far, it’s been a bad year for Canadian hockey teams facing Americans. Only last month, the U.S. stunned Canada in Saskatoon to win the world junior championships, a tournament that is widely followed in Canada.
That upset, of course, does not begin to compare to this. The Canadian Olympic team is considered to be more talented than the team that finished seventh in Turin in 2006, yet it was outplayed by the United States after requiring a shootout to beat Switzerland.
Canada must beat Germany on Tuesday merely to make it to the quarterfinals, where Russia awaits in a game that was anticipated to take place in the finals. And coach Mike Babcock has a goaltender controversy; Brodeur was below average and there is pressure to start Roberto Luongo, who shut out Norway 8-0.
“Without emotion, I’ll watch the game and I’ll make my decision after that,” coach Mike Babcock said. “We would’ve liked to be better in that area.”
Some Canadian players, including defenseman Chris Pronger, poked fun at the Americans’ pregame comments about the intensity they felt opposing Canada. By the end, Ryan Kesler’s goal with 45 seconds remaining, the Canadians looked like they could have used some of that urgency and motivation.
Canada’s stars were average – Crosby scored a goal, but didn’t stand out on many shifts, and Brodeur made uncustomary mistakes, such as giving the puck away on Rafalski’s second goal of the first period.
The Canadians aren’t out of it, but it was obvious how disappointed they are in their supposed dream team. Canada Hockey Place was rocking and rolling for most of the game, but by game’s end had transformed into a mournful quiet.
“It was a great atmosphere, but we didn’t use that to our advantage,” Jonathan Toews said.
Winning a gold medal in its national sport in this home-ice Olympics is considered a must for the Vancouver Games to be a success in Canada. That will require quite a comeback effort.
“It is probably not where we wanted to be. But that is where we are now,” Crosby said. “When you get to this point in the tournament it is not going to be easy and the fact we have to play an extra game isn’t a terrible thing and we will be ready for it.”
For the United States, the path to a medal doesn’t look as adventuresome as it did a week ago.