Olympics: U.S. kids take aim at hockey glory
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- "Sochi's team."
That term was tossed around last summer when Brian Burke, general manager of the United States hockey team, assembled a strikingly young roster of NHL talent for these Olympics.
It was seen as a necessary changing of the guard from a roster that had looked old and tired four years ago in Turin, Italy. And, because of the youth, it also was seen as a move aimed at preparing these youngsters for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, where they would be of prime age.
Well, prime time will come a little early.
The puck will drop at 3:15 p.m. today for the gold-medal game between the U.S. and Canada, and a victory would represent the Americans' third in the Olympics, the first since the 1980 Miracle on Ice.
Burke recalled Saturday his August message to the players when they met for a weeklong orientation camp outside Chicago: "I told them, 'Anyone who thinks they're here prepping for Sochi, please get up and leave right now. That's not what we're doing here. We're going to Vancouver to win.' "
And Burke, relentlessly hard-edged, is no less defiant now.
"We always felt the team was better than the media did," he told a roomful of reporters at Canada Hockey Place. "And I'm not throwing a rock here. This is where we always wanted to be. But no one thought we would be in this game. No one. So, have we overachieved in our minds? No. And we're not done. It's wonderful to be in this game, but we've got one more to win."
Not much about the Americans' showing here has looked like overachieving, even with 14 players who are 25 or younger: They are 5-0, have outscored opponents by a 22-6 margin, have not trailed in any game and, maybe most impressive, are coming off a 6-1 rout of Finland that was one of the most-lopsided semifinals in Olympic history.
Even the lone negative about the Americans' showing here -- they were dominated territorially by Canada last Sunday -- turned out to be a positive, a 5-3 victory thanks largely to goaltender Ryan Miller's 42 saves.
It was after that game that Burke made headlines by tearing into the players for having "only 10 guys pulling the rope," and they responded with more widespread efforts in eliminating Switzerland and Finland.
"Everybody's contributing now," Burke said Saturday.
Still, it might be unreasonable to predict that even the Americans elevated level of play to this point will be enough against a Canadian roster headlined by the Penguins' Sidney Crosby but loaded with All-Stars. And it surely would be unreasonable to predict Miller singlehandedly stealing another one.
So, victory likely will have to come from other areas ...
The most welcome development of the Finland game was the long-awaited contribution from Patrick Kane, with his second and third goals of the tournament. Kane is only 21, but he might be the team's most-gifted player up front. The other two in that category are his equally shifty linemates, Zach Parise and Dustin Brown, and that trio might be the only one capable of backing off the mobile Canadian defense.
"It took us a little while, but we're clicking at just the right time," Parise said.
The defense will have its hands -- and the goal crease -- full with all of Canada's oversized forwards, especially the tall-tree line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Brenden Morrow. Almost all of Canada's goals in the three games since losing to the U.S. have come on deflections, rebounds and screens, and coach Mike Babcock was focused on those again in practice Saturday.
"We were too easy on Miller last time," Babcock said. "We won't be this time."
The Americans also must be wary of Crosby, who has gone without a point in his past two games. He has generated chances for linemates Jarome Iginla and Eric Staal, but Iginla, in particular, has struggled to finish.
"Hopefully, this is the time we're going to break out," Crosby said.
Crosby's Pittsburgh teammate, Brooks Orpik, might draw the assignment of holding him in check for the U.S.
This might seem like a no-brainer in a gold-medal game, but most of Canada's opponents have come out passively out of respect for their offensive talent. But Russia and Slovakia, Canada's two most recent victims, had extended periods of success when pressing the attack. Slovakia dominated the final 10 minutes of its 3-2 loss Friday, rallying from a 3-0 deficit.
"Our game is to attack, and we're not going to change that," left wing Ryan Malone, the Upper St. Clair native, said.
Coach Ron Wilson had the Americans employing a little of the neutral-zone trap against Finland, but that was only with the big lead.
One hot topic Saturday was a possible disparity in freshness.
The Canadians will be playing their fifth game in seven days, forced to play in the qualification round Tuesday that the U.S. avoided.
Also, the Canadians will be starting a game at noon Pacific time for the first time, as all their previous games were set up for prime-time television here.
Crosby shrugged off either as a factor.
"I love the earlier start, actually," he said. "This way, you don't have to spend the whole day thinking about it. Just wake up, go to the rink and play."
Also on this topic: The U.S. is younger and, as the Penguins showed in the Stanley Cup final against the older Detroit Red Wings last spring, that can be decisive.
"Our youth, I think, is an asset, not a liability," Burke said. "We have foot-speed and energy and things that young people bring to a game."
"We believe we can win," Wilson said Saturday. "I'm not guaranteeing we're winning the game, but we certainly believe we can. Why shouldn't we believe?"
The Americans' confidence starts with Miller, the NHL's top goaltender and the star of the tournament. But it will have to run deeper, especially with the robustly intense atmosphere expected in and around the arena, a setting Burke described as Canadians wanting to "plant their flag on a peak."
"Honestly, I think there's confidence all through our team right now," Miller said. "Not enough is being said about the guys in front of me. We don't have a lot of experience, but we do have a lot of talent."
Maybe a little karma, too: Today will mark the 50th anniversary of the Americans' first Olympic hockey gold, at Squaw Valley, Calif.
First Published February 28, 2010 12:00 am