- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 21, 2010

It’s a year of signficant anniversaries for USA Hockey, as the national governing body for the sport is celebrating two improbable Olympic gold medal teams of the past.

Monday is the 30th anniversary of the famous “Miracle on Ice” game where the United States beat the Soviet Union 4-3 at Lake Placid, N.Y., en route to an unlikely gold medal clincher two days later with a victory over Finland.

Next Sunday is the 50th anniversary of the “Forgotten Miracle,” where the 1960 U.S. Olympic team went unbeaten at Squaw Valley, Calif., to capture that Olympic gold medal.

But on Sunday, the current edition of the U.S. hockey team had a bit of a miracle of its own, going into a Canada Hockey Place arena against a heavily-favored Canadian team and stunning the hosts thanks to a pair of outstanding performances by Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski and Buffalo Sabres netminder Ryan Miller, as the U.S. grabbed a 5-3 win to grab the top seed for the medal round of the tournament with a perfect 3-0 mark through the preliminary round and also earn an automatic bye into Wednesday’s quarterfinal round.

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While Canadians had sky-high expectations heading into Sunday’s border showdown, fans grew a bit concerned after needing 65 minutes and a shootout to dispatch Switzerland Thursday afternoon. But despite some troubling signs from the red-clad hosts, fans packed the home of the Vancouver Canucks, some paying well over $1,000CDN per ticket to what was expected to be a signature victory for a gold-medal contender over its rival to the south after a pair of ragged victories.

However, it was the Americans who made a strong statement on foreign ice, as without some of the stars of past U.S. hockey teams — including many of those that helped the Americans capture silver eight years ago in Salt Lake City — a rather young U.S. team looked at ease in handling perhaps one of the most talented teams ever assembled. The Americans never trailed in the game, and were able to hold off a furious comeback try by the Canadians, ending the game with an empty-net goal by Ryan Kesler in the final minute to seal the win and grab the top spot in Group A.

The U.S has had some significant wins since Mike Eurzione scored the game-winner against Vladimir Myshkin on February 22, 1980. The biggest likely was the deciding Game 3 of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey at the former Molson Center in Montreal over Canada to clinch the tournament featuring NHL pros. At the junior hockey level, the Americans have won a pair of significant wins over Canada in the past six years — including one just last month with an overtime win in the World Junior Championships in Saskatoon.

But still, the Americans hadn’t beaten the Canadians in Olympic play since that gold medal in Squaw Valley in 1960, most notably losing the gold medal game in 2002 in Salt Lake to Canada 5-2. The last U.S. Olympic team also dropped a game to Canada in Italy en route to a disappointing eighth-place finish in 2006.

So it was appropriate the U.S. wore throwback 1960 uniforms on Sunday, as in front of a hostile home crowd, the U.S. took the lead in the first minute and never trailed for a 5-3 win to send many of Canada’s 33 million people into despair.

For the U.S., they needed Miller to be their best player, and he certainly fit the billl, making 42 saves, including several stellar stops in the closing minutes as Canada desperately tried to erase a two-goal U.S. lead as the minutes ticked down. While he yielded one to Sidney Crosby with just over three minutes to play, Canada never could get the equalizer.

The Americans also got a brilliant performance from Rafalski, who bedeviled his former NHL teammate Martin Brodeur, scoring just :41 into the contest with a slap shot off Sidney Crosby’s skate, then adding another thanks to a bad clearing attempt by Brodeur. Most importantly for the U.S., the defenseman’s shot with 12:51 left in regulation was tipped in by U.S. captain Jamie Langenbrunner for the eventual game-winning goal to help set up the upset.

Privately, this was considered to be a rebuilding year for USA Hockey, with so many veteran stars including Chris Chelios, Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin not getting an invite to Vancouver. The team was built some younger players a chance to gain experience and looking forward to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia — should NHL players be allowed to participate in four years — and not quite as star-studded as other squads in the tournament.

But this young core featured several players who played on the 2004 World Junior Championship team that scored a big upset of Canada in Finland, including Kesler, who scored in both the 2004 WJC tournament final and Sunday’s game. This year’s team also played a solid game and frustrated the talented Canadian team and offensively generating some great rebounds off Brodeur to net enough goals to earn the win.

Since this was just the preliminary round, it isn’t quite on par with the 1960 or 1980 wins that paved the way to a gold medal, but it certainly does a lot to validate the American presence in this tournament, where many had expected Canada and Russia to have an easy path to the gold-medal game. Instead, those two teams could meet in the quarterfinal Wednesday should Canada advance in the qualification round Tuesday — and meaning one of those star-laden teams could have a very bitter end to their Olympic aspirations.

The Americans now will be the No. 1 seed in the quarterfinal round after the Swedes beat Finland late Sunday, and will have two days off before facing the winner of Tuesday’s Belarus-Switzerland match.

Regardless of which team the U.S. plays when the puck drops at 3 p.m. ET Wednesday, the Americans will be heavy favorites to advance to Friday’s semifinal round, which would give the team a chance to claim a medal with just one win in one of their final two contests. Just as important, the Americans would also avoid playing the two pre-tournament favorites from Canada or Russia until Sunday’s gold-medal game should they advance that far.

For the stunned hosts, their road becomes a lot more difficult, as instead of a day off, they will have to face Germany on Tuesday, and need to win four straight games to take home the gold - not to mentioning drawing more skilled opponents as the No. 6 seed in the tournament. While their gold-medal dreams weren’t dashed with the defeat, they certainly will be a much more tired team when they will play a well-rested Russian squad Wednesday should they dispatch the Germans.

It also just adds to the massive burden on the hosts, as Canadian fans are expecting gold or bust for this collection of All-Stars playing on home ice, including three players who have won the Hart Trophy for the NHL’s most valuable player.

The group finishes the preliminary round with just one win in regulation which came Tuesday over winless Norway. The spotlight is also bright on Brodeur, the future Hall-of-Famer and the NHL’s all-time leader in wins, but who has been very pedestrian in his two Olympic starts despite his impressive pedigree. Hometown favorite Roberto Luongo was stellar in Canada’s opener, but the Canucks netminder has been sitting on the bench as Brodeur has allowed six goals in two games — but could be in net the next time Canada takes the ice.

But, on this night just 30 miles north of the U.S. border, it was a great moment for American hockey, as they will now try to use their solid start to see if they can capture their second medal in eight years as the quarterfinals begin Wednesday and perhaps make the year 2010 special for more than observing past victories.

• Ted Starkey can be reached at tstarkey@washingtontimes.com.old.

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