Olympics: Scrappy US bunch shocks Canada

Article by: Dan Ryan

Ryan Kesler (left) has provided plenty of grit for the American squad and added a late empty-net goal against Canada, while Brian Rafalski (right) has been a surprise offensively, leading the team in points with five.

No, it wasn’t the “Miracle on Ice Redux,” but it certainly was spectacular.

This past Sunday’s preliminary round men’s Olympic hockey game between the United States and Canada was one of the most highly-anticipated hockey games in recent history, a sports border war to end all border wars. The high-powered, heavily favored Canadians were seeking to defend their home turf against the underdog Yanks, expected by many to be little more than a speed bump on the way to a Canada-Russia gold medal game.

While the American team can hardly be considered to be a bunch of untalented amateurs, the talent on the Canadian side is staggering:  three Canadian skaters (Eric Staal, Rick Nash and Dany Heatley) were in the top-ten in goals scored last season. Offensive firepower? Check. Oh, and the Canadians have the winningest goalie in NHL history between the pipes in Marty Brodeur.

And when the two teams finally met on Sunday night, it was the goaltending that would be the story, but not in the way one would have thought. Ryan Miller, regularly of the Buffalo Sabres, made 42 saves, including 14 in the third period alone, many of the highlight reel variety, to steal the victory for the Americans by a score of 5-3.

Brodeur, on the other hand, had a shaky outing, misplaying two pucks that led to American goals and generally seeming unsettled. Some pundits even said it was one of the most inconsistent outings of Brodeur’s Hall of Fame career.

The unlikely American victory was powered not only by Miller, but by two unlikely sources: defenseman Brian Rafalski and forward Ryan Kesler.

Rafalski, usually a defensive-minded blueliner, was the unlikely offensive sparkplug for the Americans, scoring two goals and assisting on a third. Rafalski is now leading the team with five points (four goals and five assists) on the tournament.

Kesler had a strong game overall, and sealed the victory for the U.S. when he scored one of the more remarkable empty-net goals in recent memory in a play that was basically a snapshot of the Americans’ hustle all night: he skated down the ice in a footrace for the puck with Canada’s Corey Perry, then tapped Perry on his right arm, dove around his left side and poked the puck into the gaping cage, tumbling into the boards to top it all off (words really don’t do it justice, check YouTube for video footage).

So just how big was this win for the Americans?

The last time the United States beat Canada in Olympic men’s ice hockey was in 1960. More recently, the Canadians beat the Americans in the gold medal game in Salt Lake City in 2002, denying the U.S. team a chance to win gold on home soil.

The victory is important for practical reasons as well. The Americans’ win, coupled with Finland’s loss to Sweden early Monday morning, made the U.S. team the top-seed in the entire men’s bracket, and earned the team a bye into the quarterfinals. The Americans will now play the Swiss on Wednesday afternoon, while the Canadians, seeded sixth, will be forced to play Germany.

Also important is the fact that Canada, assuming they beat Germany, will have to face Russia in the quarterfinals, meaning that one of the two hockey superpowers will not make it to the semifinals. The consensus before the tournament seemed to be that these two countries would slug it out for gold; now one nation will go home without a medal.

Most importantly, however, is what this victory should do for the confidence of the inexperienced American squad. While this edition of American pucksters is not a bunch of nobodies (after all, every player on the team is in the NHL), they do, for the most part, lack big-time international experience. The average age of the team is 26, and few of the players had ever played in the Olympics before, let alone experienced any kind of success there.

One of the most important things a team can have in a tournament like the Olympics is confidence in its goalie, and this team should now have it by the boatload. Miller stood on his head at various times against Canada, as the young American defensemen occasionally had trouble clearing the zone against a tenacious Canadian forecheck. If a team knows the masked man between the pipes is playing at the top of his game, they will be able to play a little more loosely, knowing that if they do happen to make a mistake, Miller will be ready.

This is not to say that the Americans can afford to be sloppy. Turnovers and careless play nearly ruined the first few games of the tournament for the team, and any mistakes in the medal round will be magnified tenfold due to the increased skill level of the opposition.

If the Americans are to go on and claim a gold medal that once seemed little more than a pipe dream, they will need stellar goaltending from Miller, production from their young star forwards like Patrick Kane and Zach Parise and continued grit from players like Kesler and David Backes. These young Americans have thrust themselves onto the world stage, and now must go forward, not shrink from the spotlight.

As far as the Canadians go, they need to right the ship, and quick. This is a team of superstars that was not only expected to win the gold medal, but to do it in fairly convincing fashion. Now, however, they find themselves in the daunting situation of facing a potential match-up with Russia just for a chance to win a medal.

Head coach Mike Babcock has said that Roberto Luongo will be his starter for the rest of the tournament, probably ending the international career of Brodeur. Players like Sidney Crosby and Dany Heatley have done their share, but others, particularly Joe Thornton, are ghosts on the ice, at times just floating along completely ineffectively.

The Canadians are far from done, and may be even more dangerous now. They were beaten by the Americans on their home ice in front of their fans, and will be even more fired up now than they were before.

However, one cannot overlook the amount of pressure this team is facing. They were under immense pressure before the tournament even started, but now they will be one loss from elimination for the rest of the tournament. Every member of the team faces the lifelong wrath of people from Nova Scotia to Calgary, should Team Canada fail to win the gold medal.

Going into the final games of the tournament, the differences between the teams are stark: the Americans are confident in their goalie and their offense, and now feel that they can not only play with any team, but beat any team. The Canadians are facing a semi-soap opera between the pipes, and have players up and down the bench doing some serious soul searching.

The Americans are brimming with confidence, and the Canadians are faltering in Olympic hockey in Vancouver?

It may not be what anyone expected, but people wearing red, white and blue sweaters will certainly take it.

Canada was in action late last night against Germany in a game that ended too late for this edition.