- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2010

The quest by the United States for its first Olympic gold medal in hockey in 30 years continues Friday afternoon at Canada Hockey Place in Vancouver, British Columbia, when the Americans battle 2006 silver medalist Finland, with a trip to Sunday’s gold-medal game on the line.

Finland ended the United States’ hopes for a medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics with a 4-3 win in the quarterfinals, but now the Americans head into the semifinals for the second time since 2002, having gone unbeaten through their four games. The United States team can earn a medal with a win in its final two games, guaranteeing at least a silver medal should it defeat Finland and advance to meet the Canada-Slovakia winner in the title game. Should the Americans fall to the Finns, they will play the loser of the other semifinal Saturday for the bronze.

Unlike 1980, when they were the darling underdogs of Lake Placid, the Americans have become personae non grata in British Columbia, having handed Canada its only loss of the tournament on Sunday. In their 2-0 win over Switzerland, the Americans weren’t exactly the fan favorites of the partisan home crowd.

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But the U.S. team isn’t too concerned with the crowd support, as long as it’s winning.

“We must be doing something right,” a smiling goalie Ryan Miller told the Los Angeles Times.

The big reason for the U.S. success is the play by Miller, who has posted a 1.25 goals-against average with a .944 save percentage, stopping 85 of 90 shots he’s faced so far in Vancouver. Miller recorded his first shutout of the tournament in the quarterfinal win over the Swiss but also has allowed more than one goal in a game just once, in the 5-3 win over Canada.

Zach Parise scored both goals in the shutout of the Swiss, while Brian Rafalski also has four goals in four games for the United States, which has won four straight for the first time to open an Olympics since the 1992 team that finished fourth at Albertville, France.

The Finns have advanced to the Olympic semifinals for the third time in the last four tournaments, but the nation still is looking for an Olympic gold, having finished with the silver twice in 1988 and 2006, along with two bronzes in 1994 and 1998. The Finns also are bidding to become the only nation to collect three medals in the tournament since NHL professionals were utilized in 1998, as the other two nations to have won a pair of medals in the past three games — the Czech Republic and Russia — were eliminated in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

And this year’s Finnish squad has proved to be stingy defensively, having allowed just four goals in four games, including recording a pair of shutouts over Germany and in their quarterfinal win over the Czechs. But the Finns also aren’t as potent offensively as the other three teams remaining, having just two players with more than 2 points through four games, as Calgary Flames left wing Niklas Hagman (5 points) and Minnesota Wild center Mikko Koivu (4 points) have been the exceptions.

Hagman had the game-winner in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over the Czechs, tipping a shot past netminder Tomas Vokoun with just 6:26 to play in regulation to earn the Finns a date with the Americans.

Finland’s keeper likely will be Flames netminder Miikka Kiprousoff, who has a 1.33 GAA in three contests and a .946 save percentage.

With good goaltending at both ends of the rink, goals figure to be few and far between, and the Americans will have to cash in on more of their opportunities than they did against the Swiss in order to advance to the gold-medal game for the first time since 2002 — with a potential rematch with the Canadians as their reward.