United States-Canada Preview
Due to the Olympics, the NHL will not have an All-Star game this season. It won't be missed, and for good reason.
Instead, two of the sport's superpowers meet Sunday in an emotional matchup that guarantees to be far more entertaining than any high-scoring exhibition.
Looking to secure a bye into the quarterfinals, the United States faces a Canadian squad under pressure from an entire nation to get one of the coveted top four spots.
With each team boasting a talent-laden roster from top to bottom, the Americans sit atop Group A with six points, one more than the Canadians. Though both teams have won their first two games in round-robin play, the United States took both easily in regulation.
Coach Ron Wilson said that matters little now.
"We've got a lot of young guys who haven't really played in huge games like Stanley Cup finals, and this is going to be huge," he said.
Canada, meanwhile, was forced to go to a shootout with Switzerland on Thursday in a rematch of a stunning shutout loss four years ago in Turin. The Canadians held a 2-0 lead, then watched the Swiss rally with two second-period tallies before Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby scored the only goal in the tiebreaker to avoid the upset.
"Each game is getting bigger and bigger," said the 22-year old Penguins captain. "Each game is about getting better."
Should Canada finish outside the top four, it would participate in a single-elimination qualification game - most likely against a very low seed - Tuesday before quarterfinals begin the following day.
A victory Sunday ensures the Americans an automatic spot in the quarters. History, though, is not on Team USA's side against a country that reveres hockey from pros to juniors to pee-wees with deep pride.
The Americans are 2-10 with three ties all-time against Canada, and have posted five losses and one draw since a 2-1 win in the 1960 Squaw Valley Games. Playing then in California, the United States would go on to win its first hockey gold.
Since NHL players have been allowed to participate starting in 1998, the U.S. has been outscored 9-3 in two losses.
"Come the Canada game, we've got to play playoff-type hockey," Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Malone said. "It's not rocket science."
These teams last met in the 2002 gold-medal game in Salt Lake City, where Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla each scored twice to propel Canada to a 5-2 victory and end a 50-year Olympic title drought.
It's been 30 years since the "Miracle on Ice" team stunned the world to win gold for the US, but underdog status doesn't seem to apply in this game.
"USA Hockey has just come so far that it doesn't take a miracle or an odd thing for us to win," New York Rangers forward Chris Drury said.
The Americans also will be playing virtually pressure free, a luxury the Canadians lost after being given a scare by Switzerland. Team USA goaltender Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres relishes the challenge.
"The whole house will be against us on Sunday," he said.
Miller's Olympic teammates also like what he provides.
"A goalie like (Ryan Miller) can steal games for us, especially against Canada," Anaheim Ducks forward Bobby Ryan said. "He makes guys calm, he has a great presence in net, and we're confident in him."
Miller and Canadian counterpart Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils have faced each other three times this season, with Miller holding the upper hand.
He stopped 31 shots for the Sabres in a 4-1 win Oct. 28, then made 39 saves through overtime and two more in a shootout en route to a 2-1 victory Jan. 27.
Brodeur's only win over Miller was a milestone. He tied Hall of Famer Terry Sawchuk's long-standing NHL record with his 103rd career shutout in a 3-0 triumph Dec. 7. Already the all-time wins leader, Brodeur has since surpassed Sawchuk.
Miller hasn't faced much of a test in Vancouver, but Brodeur will need to move forward after receiving one from the Swiss.
"My psyche was tough for me the whole game, knowing that it's a pressure game, people expect us to walk right through that team," he said. "At least getting the win like that is definitely nice."