Unless there’s maple syrup running through your veins, be very, very afraid of the AmericansBy Jim Litke, AP
Friday, February 26, 2010
US finishes Finns, awaits golden opportunity
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Right about now, you would have to have maple syrup running through your veins not to be afraid of the Americans.
There were plenty of good seats available when the puck dropped at noon on Finland vs. USA, proving just how knowledgeable hockey fans are in this not-quite-frozen corner of Canada. Apparently, they were making sure there was plenty of room for all the late bandwagon-jumpers.
The Yanks displayed patience and plenty of grit two days ago to crack open a Switzerland defense that was packing it in. On Friday, they needed only minutes to dismantle the Finns, whose uninterested start made you wonder if their only previous experience with ice was chilling vodka.
“I haven’t been in a game that was over in six minutes,” Finn Teemu Selanne said. “Losing like this, it’s embarrassing.”
By the end of the first period, the few Finnish fans who hadn’t fled for the exits cheered the announcement that there was only a minute left to play. At that point, the Americans had more goals — six — than the Finns had shots. You half-expected them to come out of the intermission taking potshots at Ryan Miller — their own goalkeeper — to make sure he hadn’t dozed off.
Fortunately, the Finns took care of that, getting their best chance to that point during a period-opening power play. A loose puck caromed off the backboard to Selanne less than a minute in, and he tried to tuck it in on the short side to Miller’s right.
Cat-quick, the U.S. goalkeeper fired out his leg pad, reminding everyone that the Americans’ slim hopes of inserting themselves between mighty Canada and top-ranked Russia — and into a spot in the gold-medal game — was supposed to rest on his shoulders.
But given the way the U.S. team has filled out during the less than two weeks of this tournament, Miller has gone from being the hole card to part of an inside straight.
The Americans will need all of them to hold off the winner of the Slovakia-Canada semifinal set for Friday evening, especially if they hope to avoid the same fate that befell them in Salt Lake City. There, they played inspired hockey all the way to the finale, then came out flat and got flattened by Canada, 5-2.
“It’d be huge,” winger Patrick Kane said about playing the Canadians again with another gold medal on the line. “That’s what everyone wants to see. We did our job.”
What differentiates that squad from the one that got ambushed eight years ago is desire.
Kane and Zach Parise were already established NHL stars, but here the youngsters have been a revelation. Brian Rafalski was already a known quantity as an attacking defenseman, but he’s among the leading scorers here and orchestrating the American offense with such sure-handedness he could be waving a baton instead of a stick.
“Miller has been better than good. He’s been great,” Parise said. “But the big thing is, we have a lot of good NHL players on this team from front to back who have quickly come together as a team.”
Longtime hockey insiders chuckled when U.S. coach Ron Wilson said the hallmark of his young squad was going to be speed, considering the Russians and Canadians both had enough to burn. But guess who’s laughing now?
The Americans haven’t just been sizzling up and down the rink, they’ve used their speed smartly. They routinely pour two forecheckers deep into enemy territory, deflating opposing rushes before they can pick up a head of steam.
“We knew they were young and hungry team with a lot of speed and great goaltending, a team that works hard and comes hard on their forecheck,” Finnish defenseman Sami Salo said.
“I don’t think,” he added in what might be the understatement of the tournament, “that we were ready for that forecheck.”
But the Americans get back quick, too, keeping their crease free of bodies and throwing their own in front of opposing shots with such zeal you might think Miller was everyone’s little brother.
“We believed we could win a gold medal,” U.S. captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. “Now we have the opportunity.”
And even the intangibles seem to be falling the Americans’ way.
They pulled out replica jerseys commemorating the 1960 U.S. gold medal-winning squad and honored that legacy by stunning Canada in the final preliminary-round game to steal a bye at the start of the quarterfinal round. Then they beat the Swiss on Feb. 24, a nice bit of serendipity considering the 1960 and 1980 “Miracle on Ice” squads also won on that date en route to their golds.
And if all of that doesn’t jangle the nerves of the next team the Americans draw in the finale, well, here’s one more thing for their opponents to contemplate on their day off: Sunday is the 50th anniversary of the U.S. team’s first-ever gold.
Something tells me they’re going to need to make room in the trophy case later that afternoon for No. 3.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org
Tags: British Columbia, Canada, Europe, Finland, Geography, North America, United States, Vancouver, Western Europe, Winter Olympic Games