Nearly thirty years to the day of the greatest hockey game ever played in our country, another batch of determined, gritty Americans gave a memorable performance of their own. With Miracle On Ice heroes Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig and Mark Johnson looking on in a hostile yet chaotic environment over in Vancouver, Team USA outworked tournament favorite Canada- pulling off a 5-3 upset in the final tuneup before the medal round. The stunning win allowed Ron Wilson's club to finish a perfect 3-0 winning Group A to advance automatically to the quarterfinals.
Though it was a preliminary match that pales in comparison to the remarkable American upset of world power Russia en route to winning Olympic gold over Finland, this was a huge victory for USA Hockey. Especially in a tournament few gave them a chance to medal. Maybe one thing overlooked was the kind of character architect Brian Burke opted for on a North American rink. Unlike wider rinks, the more traditional NHL sized ice is better suited to physical play. Thus far, it's been grinders Ryan Callahan, Chris Drury, Ryan Kesler, Dustin Brown, David Backes and skilled yet imposing Cherry Hill native Bobby Ryan who've made significant contributions. Facing one of the most talented rosters, they were instrumental last night. Especially down the stretch when a desperate Canada pressed for the equalizer, even holding the puck in for seemingly ever as our boys were out on their feet.
Thanks to heroic netminding from Ryan Miller, who was absolutely amazing- along with tremendous will from Callahan who atoned for a giveaway by reaching out with his right glove extended to block a shot before the puck was finally cleared after roughly 100 seconds, the hungrier Americans prevailed. Enough cannot be said about the Buffalo goalie who didn't wear trademark No.30 instead donning No.39 in special tribute to Dominik Hasek??? Something Sabres contributor Brian noted. Whatever the reason, in his third Olympic start, he emulated the Dominator with some def defying saves on his way to 42 saves, including a two-save sequence in the frantic final two minutes that featured a Hasek-esque twisting stick save followed by a glove committing highway robbery which shocked Canadian Hockey Place.
One of the front runners for the Vezina left little doubt that he was the better goalie, outplaying Martin Brodeur who was culpable on at least half the output- permitting four goals on 22 shots. His more talented team which featured the all-Shark line of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and goalscorer Dany Heatley plus finisher Sid The Kid, Rick Nash, Jarome Iginla, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and goalscorer Eric Staal helped outshoot Team USA 45-23. Canada's blueline also boasted vet tandem Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, who jumped up in the rush generating chances as did younger tandem Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty late. Despite an edge that included Dan Boyle and Shea Weber, the Canadian D struggled defensively against the Americans' feisty forwards who pounced on their opportunities.
One of the keys to the great win was Brian Rafalski, who had a tremendous night tallying twice and assisting on team captain Jamie Langenbrunner's third period power play decider with less than 13 minutes left. The former Devil defenseman was brilliant scoring 41 seconds into the contest, setting the tone. It was vital for Team USA to get out quickly against such a lethal opponent who still had the majority of the support even if there were plenty of Americans cheering on their heroes. Rafalski one-timed a Ryan Suter pass off Sidney Crosby past Brodeur. It would be a hint of things to come with Crosby finishing minus-three in spite of his late power play goal that made the ending more dramatic. That both Zach Parise and Langenbrunner, who was a beast, would be out celebrating a goal from their ex-teammate was pretty cool.
Canada responded when Staal neatly deflected home a Brent Seabrook point shot tying it 8:12 later. But before the pumped up crowd could get back in their seats, Rafalski did it again scoring his fourth consecutive goal for Team USA. This from a guy who had the same amount in 57 games with Detroit this season. He got a little help from Brodeur, who apparently must've thought Raf was still on his side. MB30 made a careless blunder aggressively paddling a loose puck right to the former Wisconsin standout whose fanned shot snuck through only 22 seconds later.
Afterwards, the Americans couldn't muster much else as the ice tilted with the hosts pushing the pedal to the mettle, outshooting the red, white and blue 19-6. Trouble was they couldn't squeeze another by Miller, who by this point was demonstrating the 2009-10 form that carried Buffalo near the top of the conference before a late slump had them a point behind Ottawa. Nothing seemed to distract him. Still, Canada came back to tie a second time early in the second when Heatley banged home a Jonathan Toews rebound off a mad scramble. Toews- who faced Blackhawk teammate Patrick Kane- was easily one of their best players. His great skating and playmaking was on display.
Every time you waited for Canada to surge ahead, Miller stood in the path as did gritty 'mates who sacrificed by finishing checks, diving to block shots and winning battles in the trenches. The intensity of Team USA was apparent. They desperately wanted this game. In the words of hometown Canuck Ryan Kesler who wisecracked that he hated Canada even guaranteeing victory, their willingness to get dirty was a noticeable difference along with Miller's clutch play in net. With the game still knotted and the crowd enjoying the physical firewagon hockey that always is associated when these rivals play, the hitting picked up. Nash had a ferocious hit. Even if it didn't compare to Alex Ovechkin's highlight reel clean shoulder that took Jaromir Jagr off the puck, leading to the Russian winner in a 4-2 triumph over Czech Republic to win their group. To quote pal John who we were over in Old Bridge:
"He sent him back to the 80's."That game was an enjoyable appetizer that included Evgeni Malkin's sweet finish on that huge turning point. Even if Jagr came back playing an inspired third, drawing three bodies to him on Petr Cajanek's goal that made it interesting before Pavel Datsyuk sealed it. Ironically, hated one-time Blueshirt Dmitri Kalinin saved Russia's bacon with a great defensive play might've resulted in the tying goal. But hey. It was a good day for Rangers with Henrik Lundqvist pitching another shutout (3-zip) this time over nemesis Finland to win Group C. Plus Drury, who scored a money go-ahead off a wild sequence that saw Brodeur flopping around with Backes and Ryan each getting whacks before the revived Ranger captain finished off his second at 16:46. Did we mention how good the controversial Burke selection was in his usual checking role alongside PK partner Callahan? Both were standouts, making key blocks late to preserve victory.
Remarkably, it was Team USA that took over late in the second and continued to push the action initially in the final stanza. Using a relentless forecheck to finally challenge Canada's D, they drew three consecutive penalties. After Canada killed off the first two including an undisciplined Crosby hi-stick in the offensive zone, they couldn't make it three-for-three. With Perry in the box for a slash, the former Devil combo went to work again with Rafalski sending another one-timer from the left wing towards the net which went off Langenbrunner's skate past Brodeur. While Parise celebrated by jumping up and down, the insurance that Suter also netted his second helper on gave the U.S. just enough margin.
From there, it was Miller Time. On a day where the team in front of him were very disciplined, they handed the Canadians two straight power plays. After killing off the first thanks to timely stops from their meal ticket along with splendid PK work, Erik Johnson was nabbed for a questionable trip. They nearly had it back to even strength when Crosby went to the net and nicely deflected home a Nash feed, sneaking it just through Miller's waffle, slicing to 4-3 with 3:09 left. Keith added a helper.
That's when it got hectic. Chaos ensued on the next shift as Canada threw the kitchen sink at Miller, trying to get it tied. For what felt like an eternity, they had Team USA pinned deep. Eventually, they got tired and Canada moved the puck quickly for pointblank chances. Somehow, Miller made the saves which ranged from a tough glove save with traffic that he turned routine to a one-timer in the slot that he got a toe on. Eventually, the puck came to a wide open Weber, who fired but Miller said no.With his dead team unable to get the puck out following a Callahan clear which was gloved down, the hardest working Ranger made up for it by making a sprawling block of a one-timer. Eventually, they cleared the zone finally getting a change.
The play-by-play from Doc Emrick was as good as it got, describing the furious action as only he can. It still wasn't over with Team Canada pulling Brodeur for an extra attacker with over a minute left. However, the American's fire won out, eventually with Parise wisely pushing the puck out off the boards to avoid icing. Then, the amazing happened as Kesler outraced Perry somehow getting his stick on it for the empty netter that sealed it with 45 ticks remaining. But down two, the Canadians still came forcing Miller to make one more save before it ended.
It's amazing to think that this was a preliminary round game. The way it was so highly contested spoke volumes about how much the players cared. It was exactly the kind of hockey which is why they must commit to 2014 in Moscow. Regardless what Gary Bettman says, this game was a homerun. Even if it wasn't on NBC. MSNBC still did a phenomenal job not screwing anything up and making it a must watch. These games matter. I don't care who you are. That was truly special.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Chris Drury, USA (2nd of Olympics for go-ahead tally)
2nd Star-Brian Rafalski, USA (2 goals and assist-leads all Americans with 5 Pts)
1st Star-Ryan Miller, USA (42 saves incl.13/14 in 3rd)