- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 27, 2010

Fifty years ago Sunday in the small resort town of Squaw Valley, Calif., the U.S. men’s hockey team won its first-ever Olympic gold medal by capping an unbeaten tournament with a victory.

This year’s team will look to repeat that moment in U.S. history when they play for the gold medal against Canada in Vancouver, as the nation’s third-ever men’s hockey gold is on the line.

The United States is the only unbeaten team in this year’s tournament, having outscored their opponents 22-6 in five straight wins — the longest an American team has gone without a loss or tie in an Olympic tournament since the 1960 squad.

Few people expected this kind of success out of this particular squad, as unlike some of the other teams in the tournament, the U.S. has only three players with previous Olympic experience, and had to rely on its young talent like Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane.

“A gold medal would be unbelievable,” Kane told Sports Illustrated Friday. “It’s something you see so many athletes work so hard for. For me personally, I know I’m pretty young at 21, and I hope I’ll have a couple of more opportunities. … You mention the Olympics, you get one chance every four years. To do it this year in my first opportunity would be very special.”

“We’re very excited about the opportunity we’ve been given, with so many of us at a young age,” Jack Johnson told the magazine. “This is the most unselfish team I’ve ever played with. Every single guy on that team will lay it on the line on Sunday. Diving headfirst into shots. Getting pucks out at the blueline. No one cares who scores the goals.”

But standing in the way of perfection and the gold medal is the host Canadians, who were heavy favorites coming into the tournament and feature three Hart Trophy winners on their talent-laden roster.

The theme of this year’s gold-medal game is also one of revenge, as the two neighbors have supplanted Russia as each other’s top rival in the past decade. The U.S. and Canada now have met in two of the last three Olympic finals — not to mention splitting the last seven World Junior Championship titles.

For a pair of Americans, the rematch of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic final will be a bit more personal, as Chris Drury and Brian Rafalski were part of the team that lost 5-2 to Canada, and both veterans have performed well in this year’s tournament.

Drury was a controversial pick for the U.S. roster after his major struggle this season with the Rangers, but he scored a key goal against Canada to fuel Sunday’s upset win. Rafalski also was key in the round-robin portion of the tournament, scoring four goals in four games.

“Obviously it [the gold-medal game] gives us an opportunity to do something we didn’t do that last time,” the Red Wings defenseman told USA Hockey Magazine.

The Canadian revenge will be a bit fresher, as the U.S. forced Canada into the sixth seed after the lost, and had to play an extra game against Germany as result of the setback. The hosts would love nothing more than to grab gold at the expense of the lone team to beat them in the tournament — not to mention their closest rival.

The key to the U.S. hopes will be in net, as Sabres netminder Ryan Miller has been excellent through the better part of five games, recording a shutout and allowing just 5 goals in 291 minutes of play in Vancouver.

“[The win over Canada] definitely helped us in this tournament,” Miller told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Maybe it even helped them, woke them up a little bit.”

The other factor that could come into play will be intense pressure on the hosts to deliver the gold medal. The Canadians looked tight at the start the tournament, and ironically, their loss to the U.S. seemed to temper expectations somewhat and allowed them to play a more relaxed game en route to easy wins over Germany and Russia, and two good periods against Slovakia before needing to hold off a late charge. But the expectations are sky-high with them back in the finals, and a second loss to the U.S. in the tournament won’t be received well.

For the U.S., they will try and score early and take what figures to be a frenzied crowd — some paying over $2,000CDN per ticket — out of the game, and get the hosts thinking.

The only times the Canadians have trailed in the entire tournament was in the game against the U.S., and certainly playing from behind seemed to weigh on the hosts.

The difference this time around for the Canadians is they will have Roberto Luongo in net, as Martin Brodeur’s mediocre performance against the United States earned him a spot on the bench. The Canucks netminder has been solid playing in his home rink, but this will be by far the biggest game of his career.

“There’s a gold medal on the line and that’s what we’re all focused on,” Luongo told Canwest News Service before Friday’s semifinal. “There are no easy games in this tournament.”

Both teams have their places in history on the line, as while the United States look to add their names to the legendary teams of 1960 and 1980, the Canadians hope to cap off the Olympics on their home soil with a nationwide celebration.

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