US men’s hockey team prepares for Finland, but knows gold is just 2 wins away

By Ira Podell, AP
Thursday, February 25, 2010

US team focuses on Finland but thinks about gold

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The forward lines ran drills in different colored jerseys. The coaches diagrammed plays on a white board. The players jostled and cracked smiles.

Nothing about this practice suggested that the U.S. men’s hockey team was just two wins from a most improbable gold medal.

The Americans meet Finland in a semifinal Friday, and some thoughts are starting to creep in about what could be in store if this unbeaten team keeps winning.

“That’s only natural,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, a Stanley Cup champion with Pittsburgh last season. “If you’re not thinking about that, then I think you’re lying. I think that’s good to kind of look ahead. You have to set your goals high, but at the same time not overlooking the game you have.”

While few expected the U.S. to make such a deep run in this tournament filled with teams loaded with NHL talent, the same argument could be made for the Finns even though they captured the silver medal at the 2006 Turin Games.

Whoever wins Friday will advance to the gold-medal game against Canada or Slovakia. It has been 30 years since the U.S. men won gold.

“We have a very difficult game against Finland,” goalie Ryan Miller said. “They are very fast, they’re very well organized. I don’t think we got this far by looking ahead. We’ve always focused on that one game we needed. This will be a bigger test for our locker room to see if we can keep our heads in the right spot.”

The Americans have been on a high since stunning Canada on Sunday in the final game of the preliminary round. That victory clinched first place in their group and excused them from having to qualify for the quarterfinals.

It set up a rematch with Switzerland, the first opponent for the U.S. in these games. Like in the opener, the Americans were patient enough to outlast the gritty Swiss 2-0. Despite a wide edge in shots, the Americans didn’t break the scoreless deadlock until the third period when top-line forward Zach Parise scored.

Parise added an empty-net goal to salt away Miller’s fourth straight win.

“Last game we really stuck to the plan,” forward Ryan Malone said. “We didn’t get frustrated. That was a good test for us to make sure that everyone was on the same page.”

Finland brings a similar style to the Swiss, Orpik said after a video session. Finland prefers to sit back and try to capitalize on mistakes. With physical players on a smaller, NHL-sized rink, the Finns might look to play a closer-checking game similar to the Americans’ approach.

A potent power play that has produced seven goals in four games has helped Finland make a repeat trip to the Olympic medal round.

“They’re a patient team. Probably a little more experienced and talented than the Swiss,” Orpik said. “The key is not take as many penalties as some of the other teams. That has been one of our strong suits, being disciplined.”

Discipline and structure are familiar refrains for NHL players, who are creatures of habit, if not downright superstitious.

Usual routines are not only altered at the Olympics, where game and practice teams are generally at odd hours, sometimes typical daily activities are scrapped altogether.

Parise has given up his routine of spending time in a cold tub on game days. All but one of the Americans’ five games in Vancouver have been scheduled for noon.

“It’s different when you’re playing at 7,” he said. “I don’t want to be taking a cold tub at 10 in the morning. That’s one thing I kind of threw out. Shockingly I can still play without doing it.”

Miller has become more of a celebrity in the past two weeks since leaving relative anonymity while starring for the Buffalo Sabres. He has been called the best goalie in the NHL this season on numerous occasions, and his popularity is rising.

“They have a great goalie, we have to make sure he doesn’t see all the pucks,” Finn forward Teemu Selanne said.

Miller has stopped 85 of 90 shots in his Olympic debut and has carried his club with a 1.25 goals-against average while playing every minute of the tournament.

That is enough to make his Twitter trend up.

“That kind of blows me away,” the usually reserved Miller said with a smile. “One of my friends said the Jonas Brothers said something on Twitter, and Alyssa Milano and stuff like that. It’s been a little surreal. It’s just very different to me. I am used to hockey just being a cult sport that people just want to pay attention to at their convenience.”

With another two wins, Miller and the rest of this group Americans could enjoy household-name status throughout the United States — if even for just a while.

For now, they are focusing on Finland. They have quickly bonded. Each victory has given them confidence that they can beat anyone.

“I’m sure it’s in the back of everyone’s mind, but it’s hard to look past the game tomorrow,” Parise said. “We’ve really got to be ready to play. It’s going to be a tough team, it’s going to be a tough game. We have to make sure that we’re ready to go. We’re expecting another really tight, low-scoring game.

“With the excitement after the Canada game, it would’ve been easy for us to have a letdown when we were playing the Swiss — who everyone thinks is a much lesser opponent,” he said. “Watching guys blocking shots, laying down on penalty kills, that really can bring a team together and uplift a team.”

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