Olympics: U.S. wins, but don't call it a Miracle
Brian Rafalski, left, celebrates with U.S. teammates Ryan Suter and Paul Stastny right after the final horn Sunday.
Jamie Langenbrunner celebrates one of U.S. teammate Brian Rafalski's goals against Canada's Martin Brodeur.
Ryan Kesler is congratulated by U.S. teammate Zach Parise after his empty-netter sealed the victory.
Brian Rafalski, No. 28, scores one of his two goals past Canada's Martin Brodeur.
Chris Drury, left, slams home a shot into Canada's vacated net. Only defenseman Dan Boyle had a chance to stop him.
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- No, this was not a Miracle.
Nothing will match what those college kids achieved at Lake Placid, 30 years ago today, against the mighty Soviet machine. Not in hockey. Maybe not in American sports.
But this edition of the United States hockey team, an underdog in its own right as the youngest in these Olympics, did carve its own small slice of history by getting two goals from Brian Rafalski and 42 saves from Ryan Miller for a 5-3 toppling of Sidney Crosby's gold-medal favorite Canadian team Sunday night.
And the scope of that result might have been best measured through the stunned silence of the capacity crowd at Canada Hockey Place-- never mind the bulk of the 33 million citizens watching on TV north of the border -- that was in stark contrast to the raucous atmosphere that had greeted the home team.
"You look up, and everything was red and white, with very few American flags," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said. "That's fine. We expected a hostile welcome, and I think that helped us."
"It was an unbelievable atmosphere," forward Ryan Kesler said. "To beat Canada on their home soil ... that's pretty special."
It was only a preliminary-round game, albeit one that gave the U.S. a 3-0 record, the Group A title, the No. 1 seed of all 12 teams and a bye into the quarterfinals against the winner of the Switzerland-Belarus game Tuesday.
But this most assuredly qualifies as a landmark in the proper context:
• It was the Americans' biggest Olympic upset since 1980. They reached the gold-medal round in 2002, but that came by beating a Russian team not nearly as strong as these Canadians.
• It was the Americans' biggest international upset at the top level -- meaning NHL players -- since the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, when they took a best-of-three final from Canada in Montreal.
• It was the Americans' first time beating Canada in the Olympics since 1960 in Squaw Valley, Calif., when they went on to win gold. There was a tie in 1994 and the championship loss in 2002.
Perhaps the most important distinction between this upset and those of the past is that, plain and simple, this one did not require a Miracle. Not with more Americans than ever in the NHL. And not with the record number of players at the developmental levels. That includes Pittsburgh, where there are 10 times as many rinks now than before the Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux in 1984.
One of those, Upper St. Clair native Ryan Malone, was wearing the red, white and blue in this one, the only Olympic hockey player born and trained in the Pittsburgh area. Another, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, was raised in Buffalo and named after Herb Brooks, the late architect of the Miracle.
One telling sign of how far the U.S. has come might have been the reaction afterward: The players congratulated Miller, patted each other on the helmets and, for the most part, downplayed it all.
"It feels good," Malone said. "I think we realize it's not the end, though. It was important to finish on top of our group. There's a lot left in front of us."
"It's a huge win," left winger Patrick Kane, one of the team's many Olympic first-timers, said. "And it's exciting. Hockey's come a long way in our country, and I think we're showing that here."
But Kane stopped there.
"We're not done playing yet, and we know that. But I also know that it's going to be fun. This is a lifetime opportunity for a lot of us, and we're going to have fun with it."
That would make the Americans the antithesis of the Canadian group, what with the relentless talk here of pressure regarding all athletes. When the U.S. took a 4-2 lead early in the third period, the place fell deathly silent.
That is pressure as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Wilson had been determined to play up this angle in the days leading to the game, talking about "pressure on Canada" and portraying his team as the hopeless underdog. At the same time, he clearly toyed with his players' minds -- something Brooks famously did in 1980 -- by publicly questioning how they might handle facing Canada "emotionally."
That carried into Sunday, when Wilson and general manager Brian Burke arranged for the Americans to wear replica 1960 sweaters. There also were Miracle members in the arena: Mike Eruzione, who scored the winning goal in 1980, as well as goaltender Jim Craig and forward Mark Johnson, now coach of the U.S. Olympic women's team.
Reminders of great history were installed everywhere and, yet, Wilson downplayed the victory as much as his players did.
"We skipped a round to get to the quarters. That's it," Wilson said. "We're looking ahead."
Any intangibles, of course, should be ranked well below the performances of Miller and Rafalski.
Miller, star of the Buffalo Sabres, was brilliant from front to finish, including a first period in which the U.S. was outshot 19-6 but emerged with a 2-1 lead, and a third period in which Canada dominated to the extent the ice looked tilted.
"He was awesome," Malone said.
"It's probably one of the most intense games I've ever played in," Miller said. "But when things happened, we responded. We didn't get nervous or anxious. We just kept playing."
Rafalski, of the Detroit Red Wings, scored both U.S. goals in the first period, then set up Jamie Langenbrunner's eventual winner in the third. All that, and he was the team's best defender and penalty-killer.
"It wasn't me or Ryan," Rafalski said. "We all worked hard."
The Americans will finish first or second in the overall pool of 12 teams. If first, they get Switzerland or Belarus in the quarterfinals. If second, they get Slovakia or Norway.
Canada, now 2-1, must play in the qualification round Tuesday against Germany. If it advances, Canada will play Russia in the quarterfinal, a matchup many had forecast for the gold medal.
Crosby, the Penguins' captain, tried to find the positives, just as he did after his team needed his shootout goal to beat Switzerland.
"I thought we bounced back and put a lot of pucks at them," Crosby said. "And there were some bounces that went their way. When you're playing just one game, those make a big difference. But, if we play hard like that from here on, I like our chances."
Canada used its superior size to attack Miller with relentless shooting, deflections and traffic and, thus, dominated the first half of the game. But there was only a 2-2 tie to show for it at that point.
About midway through the second period, the Americans found some equilibrium and, at 16:46, Chris Drury rapped a loose puck into the vacated net behind Canada's Martin Brodeur to restore their lead, 3-2.
That posture did not change in the third and, on the second of the power plays they earned, the Americans went ahead by two when Langenbrunner tipped Rafalski's point shot through Brodeur at 7:09.
Crosby scored on a redirect with 3:09 left to cut the U.S. lead to 4-3 and add to the tension, but Miller held strong and Kesler dived to score an empty-netter that sealed it.
"Those last few minutes were like hours," U.S. center David Backes said. "But we made it."
First Published February 22, 2010 12:00 am