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U.S. Olympic hockey upset of Canada could become frozen in time

No, it's not the Miracle on Ice, but the Americans' landmark victory over the favored Canadians at their own game, on their own ice, may come to be remembered as a sea change in Olympic hockey.

February 22, 2010|Bill Plaschke

From Vancouver, Canada — The Canadians still have endless skies, forever kindness and bottomless Molsons.

But as of a draining, delightful Sunday night, we own their game.

We'll let them keep their "eh," but we have stolen their "wow." They still have Wayne Gretzky, but for now, we are the Great Ones.

"Hockey Night in Canada" became Hooray Night in America, the U.S. defeating the Canadians in their national sport in Olympic competition for the first time in 50 years in front of thousands of red shirts stunned stiff.

"Amazing," said defenseman Ryan Kesler.

"Unbelievably special," said goalie Ryan Miller.

Shhhhh, said the Americans to the incessantly raucous fans in Canada Hockey Place after winning, 5-3, in a first-round game that, let's face it, they should have lost.

The Canadians are bigger. The Canadians are more experienced. The Canadians had nearly twice as many shots. The Canadians had thousands more cheers, boot-rattled roars with each twist of each blade.

The red shirts had the Canadian might. But the white shirts had American know-how.

In a swirling sensation of a game that held the energy and emotion of a Canadian pond scrum, the Americans made every move count and every hit hurt. When they finished this most adult of victories, they celebrated with the dancing skates of little boys, throwing sticks into the stands and caution to the wind.

After two hours of being filled with chants of "Go, Canada, go," the arena suddenly echoed a smaller, if equally fervent, message.

"U-S-A . . . U-S-A."

"Obviously, we know we can beat anybody now," said defenseman Brian Rafalski.

This wasn't the Miracle on Ice, but it was the biggest win for U.S. hockey since the gold-medal triumph in 1980. It was a victory by kids and scrappers and one 36-year-old guy who entered the tournament with four goals in 57 games for the Detroit Red Wings.

With two goals Sunday, Rafalski now has four goals in three games in these Olympics.

"I don't know what's going on," said the small, balding man whose work ethic has come to represent this team.

It was Rafalski who set the tone by firing the puck past struggling Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur just 41 seconds into the game. Midway through the first period, with the score tied, Rafalski then took a foolishly batted clearing pass from Brodeur and knocked it past him again.

It was like that the entire game, the U.S. getting outshot, 45-23, but squeezing the most out of every little poke and check.

"Be Brilliant In The Basics," read the sign in the U.S. dressing room, and that is exactly what they were, from the first moment Jamie Langenbrunner slammed Rick Nash into the boards to the time Ryan Suter simply sat on Sidney Crosby.

"We scratched, we clawed, we finished our checks, we stayed on them the entire time, because we knew if we didn't, they would pile it on," Kesler said.

The Americans took those two early leads, fell back into a tie early in the second period, then scrapped to the goal that put them ahead for good late in that period by simply beating through the Canadian defense.

Canada furiously attempted to rally late in the third period after closing to within 4-3, but young goalie Miller, who had 42 saves, stopped everything, including a slot shot from Nash in the final two minutes, before Kesler scored the clinching empty-net goal in the final minute.

"We're throwing 45 shots at these goalies and they're making stops facing forward, backward, sideways," said the embattled Brodeur.

It was only the final game of the Olympic first round. These two teams could meet again in the medal round. Nonetheless, it wasn't only groundbreaking, it was ground-halting, the U.S. team stopping what had become a steady flow of Canadian smack coming from the hundreds of thousands of hockey fans who spent the weekend filling the downtown Vancouver streets.

"Maybe there will be a little less yelling on the streets," Kesler said. "I was walking around last night and it got a little scary. I had to put my wife under my wing and get out of there."

How bad was it? This is a guy who plays for the hometown Vancouver Canucks.

After building all weekend here on the impossibly crowded city streets, the fervor crested two hours before the game when hundreds of red-shirted fans jammed the entrances, piling upon each other with cheers and chants, one giant moving maple leaf that later grew even louder inside.

But while the Canadians had most of the love, they also had all the pressure, as evidenced by the most horrendous goalie play from future Hall of Famer Brodeur, who led to that tiebreaking goal in the second period after being knocked down in front of the net. On his stomach, he foolishly dived out after the puck, leaving the net open for Chris Drury to poke it in for a 3-2 U.S. lead.

It wasn't very pretty. But it was pure America. Land of the free and home of the puck.

Unfrozen in time

U.S. channels look, spirit of past Olympic champions to upset Canada. V4

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