Americans step into role as medal contender
In the aftermath of their improbable 5-3 win over Canada Sunday night, the United States’ men’s hockey team went from a team with an outside shot at a medal to one that is in the driver’s seat for the country’s second men’s hockey medal in eight years.
With Sweden’s win over Finland late Sunday, the Americans will enter the medal round as the top seed of the entire tournament, as they get a chance to sit back and await their next opponent before returning to action at 3 p.m. ET Wednesday against the winner of Tuesday’s Belarus-Switzerland qualification game.
As unpredictable as hockey can be, the Olympic format is even more difficult to forecast, because one good performance by a goaltender can end a team’s medal hopes in a hurry.
The Canadians certainly found that out Sunday when U.S. netminder Ryan Miller held the door on a furious comeback attempt in the game’s final minutes, finishing with 42 saves, many of the spectacular variety.
“It was one of the biggest games I’ve played in my life,” Miller told the Philadelphia Inquirer after the contest. “For us to get five goals against the Canadians, that’s something.”
Miller, who is one of the leading candidates for the NHL’s Vezina Trophy as top netminder this season, showed his mettle against a loaded Canadian team, turning aside several glorious chances and giving his team a chance to win despite the hosts controlling the play over much of the game’s final five minutes.
“After 45 seconds or a minute, I know I was tired,” Miller told the paper. “I can’t imagine how exhausted [the skaters] were.”
Fortunately for the Americans, rest will be on the menu, as there will be some perks with being the top seed.
For starters, the Americans don’t have to worry about facing all-star teams on Wednesday — neither the Belarussians or Swiss have many NHL veterans.
The U.S. has already beaten Switzerland 3-1, opening the tournament Tuesday with the win. Swiss netminder Jonas Hiller - who plays for the Anaheim Ducks - has been very good for the Swiss, holding his own and almost engineering an upset of Canada on Thursday.
Should Belarus advance, the U.S. will take on a team that defeated Germany for its lone victory in the first three games. But the small nation’s hockey team also authored one of the medal round’s biggest upsets in its last Olympic appearance in 2002, having knocked out Sweden in the quarterfinals in perhaps the biggest upset in the latter stages of the tournament since 1980’s “Miracle on Ice.”
The outlook for a medal became much brighter for the U.S. after the hard-fought victory. The United States a week ago was largely pencilled in as the second seed in Group A and hoping to get a somewhat favorable draw in the medal round and looking to erase a disappointing eighth-place finish in Turin with a younger and faster club.
Now, in the wake of their signature win Sunday, they have a favorite tag firmly affixed to them as the tournament moves into its elimination phase — especially since one of the two big pre-tournament favorites, Canada or Russia, will be gone by the time the quarterfinals end Wednesday night.
U.S. coach Ron Wilson was already trying to temper the heightened expectations.
“In fairness, Canada probably out-chanced us 2-1 most of the game and the goalie played excellent. I still think we’ve got a long way to go,” Wilson told reporters. “There’s some great teams out there. Canada, I personally think is the best team.”
But the schedule is very favorable to the U.S. with the top seed, as should they beat the Belarussians or the Swiss Wednesday, a date with the Czechs, Finns or Norweigans would be on tap Friday with a chance to clinch at least a silver medal with a win. A potential rematch with Canada or a 1980 rematch with Russia wouldn’t come until Sunday’s gold-medal game, if the teams advance that far.
So, with two days to prepare, the U.S. will look to fit into the new role as medal contender - and look to avoid the pressure and pitfalls that did in Canada Sunday night.