U.S. now favorites for gold?
The team that came into this Olympic tournament relishing its role as the underdog has now become the hunted.
The United States, which is threatening to run away with the overall medal count in the Olympics, enters the meat of the hockey tournament as the No. 1 seed, thanks to its 3-0-0 record and the brilliant goaltending of Ryan Miller.
And for that, the Americans have become legitimate contenders for the gold medal. That's because en route to the final, defending Olympic champion Sweden, defending world champion Russia and pre-tournament favorite Canada all find themselves in the same bracket. The Americans, meanwhile, have only the Czechs and Finland among the world hockey powers on their side.
The picture became clear Sunday night when Sweden easily handled Finland 3-0. The Swedes dominated the game from start to finish, as evidenced by the fact that you could have counted Finland's legitimate offensive opportunities on one hand and still had fingers remaining to scratch your nose.
The Finns went into the game knowing all they needed to do was to keep the score down and they played like a team that was trying to do just that.
"The intensity wasn't there," said Finnish winger Teemu Selanne. "I don't think we were mentally ready. Obviously, we knew we were going to get by and I don't know if that made us a little too comfy, but I want to see a better game than that."
If that is to happen in the quarterfinal, the Finns will have to do it without arguably their best defenseman after Joni Pitkanen was kicked out of the game for an elbow to the head of Patric Hornqvist of Sweden. The major penalty carries an automatic suspension for Finland's quarterfinal game, while Hornqvist's status for the next game is in question.
"He's not really in bad shape, but he's out and if we played (Monday) he wouldn't be able to play, that's for sure," said Swedish coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson. "But we still have two days before the next game so we'll see what happens."
But it has been the play of Miller that has been the story of the tournament so far. In turning aside 42 shots on Sunday in a 5-3 win over Canada, Miller gave the Americans the kind of impenetrable goaltending that has the potential to lead a team of lesser lights to the gold medal.
Miller has played all three games for the Americans and has allowed five goals on 71 shots for a 1.57 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. Jaroslav Halak of Slovakia has been even better, allowing just four goals on 82 shots for a 1.30 goals-against average and .951 save percentage. Henrik Lundqvist of Sweden hasn't allowed a goal, but has played only two games and wasn't tested very much in either one.
American coach Ron Wilson compared Chris Drury to Miracle on Ice captain Mike Eruzione in his post-game comments Sunday, which might be a bit of a stretch. But if Miller continues to play the way he did against Canada, it won't be long until he begins to be compared to Jim Craig and Jack McCartan (who led the Americans to the gold medal in 1960).
The seeds going into the rest of the tournament are as follows:
5. Czech Republic
Here are the four games in the qualification round Tuesday:
Czech Republic vs. Latvia
Canada vs. Germany
Slovakia vs. Norway
Switzerland vs. Belarus
Then we move on to the quarterfinals Wednesday, which will feature:
1. Winner of Switzerland-Belarus vs. USA
2. Winner of Slovakia-Norway vs. Sweden
3. Winner of Canada-Germany vs. Russia
4. Winner of Czech Republic-Latvia vs. Finland
Then the semifinals, which are slated for Friday:
Winner of Game 1 vs. winner of Game 4
Winner of Game 2 vs. winner of Game 3
And, of course, the winners of those two games face off for the gold medal Sunday. The losers play for the bronze Saturday.
Ken Campbell is in Vancouver covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for THN.com. Read his other reports HERE.
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