- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 28, 2010

For many Canadians, the high point of the Vancouver Olympics was the final competition, the gold-medal men’s hockey game, which had been circled on calendars north of the border since the British Columbia city was awarded the Winter Olympics back in 2003.

That anticipation became one of the biggest games in the sport’s history when the host nation advanced to the final in front of the rabid home fans, moving on to face the country’s biggest rival in the hockey world that happens to sit just 30 miles south of Canada Hockey Place - the United States.

And the game certainly didn’t disappoint, as the hosts raced out to a 2-0 lead, but the U.S. fought back, pulling even as Zach Parise, with just :24.4 left in regulation, sent the deciding game to overtime for the first time since 1994.

But the talent-laden Canadian roster — featuring nine NHL captains and three Hart Trophy winners for league MVP — capped a record Olympics for Canada with a 3-2 overtime win over the United States.

Sidney Crosby’s goal in overtime gave Canada its historic 14th gold medal.

“It’s gotta be right there,” Crosby - who won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring - told NBC when asked if it was the biggest goal of his career. “This is a dream come true and playing for Team Canada and winning the gold medal.”

Facing intense pressure in front of a hockey-mad nation where nothing but the nation’s second gold medal in eight years would do, the hosts stumbled a bit in the round-robin portion of the tournament, needing overtime to beat Switzerland and losing to the U.S. in their third game, forcing them to win four games in six days to take the tournament.

“It was a little bit tougher [after the round-robin games], we dropped the game to the U.S. and had a close call against the Swiss,” Crosby told the network when asked about the slow start. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, a lot of great teams out there, and needed lot of work and extra effort to get there.

“We knew we had better, you always have to get your team going … and we really came together quickly,” he added.

But the Canadian team did just that, rolling past Germany, Russia and then outlasting Slovakia to earn a spot in the final, and avenged their loss to the United States a week ago in front of a red-clad crowd at the home of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks - some who paid thousands of dollars to be in attendance. The home nation won for the third time in the tournament’s history, with the United States claiming gold medal on home soil the other two times in 1960 and 1980.

As for the United States team, the defeat ended a strong showing. The Americans were undefeated heading into the final, despite having the youngest roster in the tournament. The silver medal is the Americans’ 37th in Vancouver, setting a new all-time record for total medals at a Winter Olympics.

Few experts expected a medal for the U.S. squad, overshadowed as it was by the more talented Canadian, Russian and Swedish clubs. The NHL’s players union had even booked several U.S. players’ plane tickets out of Vancouver back to their clubs before the gold-medal game was set to take place.

Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller did his best to get the U.S. to this stage, providing some highlight-reel saves during the tournament and keeping the Americans in Sunday’s contest despite some good chances for the hosts to put the U.S. away. For his efforts, Miller was voted the MVP of the tournament.

“We gained a lot of respect,” Miller told NBC after the loss. “Our guys came in as an afterthought. I think we started a new trend for USA Hockey.”

But the U.S. couldn’t become the first squad since the Soviet Union in 1988 to go through an entire tournament unbeaten and untied, and wasn’t able to avenge the nation’s 2002 gold-medal loss to Canada at Salt Lake.

Both teams got off to a bit of a tenative start, with chances traded back and forth as the two teams settled into the contest.

Dustin Brown had the best chance to put the U.S. up early, breaking in on Luongo with 10:09 left in the period but not quite able to stuff the puck past the goal line after it slid under Roberto Luongo’s outstretched pad before a Canadian defenseman tucked it under his pad.

But Canada followed up with some sustained pressure after Brown’s chance, and Jonathan Toews collected a rebound from a Mike Richards shot and put it past Ryan Miller with 12:50 elapsed in the contest to put the U.S. behind for the first time in the tournament.

The hosts had a chance to boost their lead when Bobby Ryan was called for tripping Dany Heatley with 5:58 left in the period, but the U.S. was able to kill off the power-play, thanks to a nice Miller save on a break by Eric Staal. But the score remained the same through 20 minutes, with Canada holding a slight 10-8 lead in shots.

Staal had a golden chance to boost the lead off a bad tournover in the U.S. zone, but Miller was able to hold his ground and keep the U.S. down just one. Ryan Malone put the United States a man down again, but Miller stood tall, making a nice save on Joe Thornton during the successful kill.

Staal then gave the U.S. its first chance with the extra-man with 4:41 gone in the frame, but the Americans couldn’t generate much offense despite the advantage. Right after the kill, Miller had to make a great save, but a bad play by U.S. defenseman Ryan Whitney led to Corey Perry’s goal with 7:13 gone in the period.

The Americans got another chance with the extra man as Toews was called for tripping Ryan Suter, and got a couple of nice chances with the momentum gained with the extra man, but Luongo made a nice stop on Paul Statsny to keep the U.S. off the board.

But the U.S. finally got on the board with 7:16 left in the frame as Ryan Kesler tipped in a shot from Patrick Kane which got through Kesler’s NHL teammate, Luongo to give the U.S. new life and cut the Canadian lead in half.

The U.S. got some momentum following the tally, as Suter nearly tied the game up with just under four minutes to play, narrowly missing a shot that eluded Luongo. Canada nearly got one shortly after on a nice drive by Rick Nash, but Mike Richards couldn’t quite connect on his feed out front.

Canada nearly took a 3-1 lead in the first minute of the third when Shea Weber’s shot was inadvertently deflected by Suter, but it hit the left post. Chris Pronger’s drive in the next minute just hit the right post, keeping the U.S. down by a single goal. Another bad turnover nearly turned into another Canadian goal, as Kane turned over the puck, but Miller made three great saves on Patrick Marleau and Heatley to preserve the Americans’ hopes.

The U.S. turned up the pressure as time began to run out, with the Canadians hanging back and content to let the Americans carry the play. Zach Parise and Brian Rafalski had some good chances in close to pull the U.S. even, but Luongo was able to make the saves when he needed to.

Crosby had a chance to put the tournament away with just over three minutes to play, but couldn’t convert on a breakaway chance on Miller.

The U.S. pulled their netminder with 90 seconds left to try and get the equalizer, and Parise scored on a rebound of a Kane shot on Luongo during a scramble in front to tie the game with :24.4 left to play.

The two teams then hit the ice for a four-on-four overtime session for the first time since Canada’s last gold-medal loss, to Sweden in Lillehammer in 1994. With Canada pushed to make up for the late blown lead, with 2002 hero Jarome Iginla and Marleau nearly scoring in the session’s first five minutes. Heatley and Nash also had good scoring chances, but Miller held strong to keep the sudden-death period going.

Then Crosby picked up a pass from Iginla in the corner and beat Miller along the far post with a shot 7:40 into the extra-session, giving the Canadians gold.

“I just tried to shoot it quick, [Iginla] bumped it out to me. I think it went five-hole, I didn’t really see it go in,” Crosby told NBC of the winner.

“I played the whole torunament aggressive, he picked up his head earlier than I thought,” Miller told the network of the game-winner.

The face of the Canadian team, Crosby had been quiet the last couple of contests, but he delivered with the biggest goal of his young career thanks to a feed from the hero of the last Canadian gold-medal team.

Canada’s deeper talent - especially the potency of their goal-scorers - was the difference, and despite a good effort by Miller and the United States, the games that started with so much turmoil for the hosts ended with a record-setting gold medal.

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