Setting aside the mainstream media’s desire to compare this United States hockey team’s efforts to that of its 1980 Lake Placid “Miracle on Ice” brothers for a moment, this game is absolutely huge in its own right. The political landscape, the changes to the rules of the game, the talent level of the eligible combatants and the times have changed so much that comparisons to 1980 are misplaced. However, the gravity of the game is such that one can’t help but imagine the feelings going through the hugely outnumbered United States’ citizens in attendance at the normal home of the Vancouver Canucks, Canada Hockey Place, as the puck drops for today’s contest.
Reading most if not all accounts regarding this game, the hope of victory for the United States showed that the only reason to call the red, white and blue a “favorite” is the fact that they have earned the number one seed in the tournament powered by gutty performances by a host of players, not the least of which is the much talked about stellar goaltending by the Buffalo Sabers’ Ryan Miller and goal scoring prowess by Zack Parise. Canada is in fact “favored” to win by anyone and everyone who is considered an “expert” in the sport or those of us who simply passionately follow the most entertaining of all live sporting events.
Sometimes the most important things in life are those put on paper. Marriage licenses, a thesis prepared to earn a graduate degree and letters of recommendation are all important documents that garner the requisite level of respect that they deserve. Thus, let’s not overlook that one small advantage the U.S.A. has over Canada today, and it’s one of those things that comes from the rulebook which is of course, on paper. The number one seed gives the U.S.A. the designation of “the home team.” How ironic. Thousands in the seats wearing red and chanting “Let’s Go Canada” while in fact the men in blue will have the last change when it comes to sending the team’s lineup to the ice for any start or restart of play. The last change allows U.S. coach Ron Wilson to get the player vs player matchups that he wants. That is no small thing when it comes to engineering victories in hockey. Therein lies the reason hockey teams at any level would strongly prefer home ice advantage during the championship round of competition.
Build-up is nearly over…let’s look at today’s lineups.
Starting Goaltender: Ryan Miller
Backup Goaltender: Tim Thomas
Starting Goaltender: Roberto Luongo
Backup Goaltender: Martin Brodeur
The Puck in Play
The first period resembled most good NHL playoff games at the outset of game one of a series.Teams feel each other out, hitting is plentiful in an effort to send a message for later and it’s key to get your own goalie involved early. An idle goalie left idle for too long often “out thinks himself” on the first shot because he hasn’t had a chance to simply react to shots in the manner that he is accustomed to during normal in-game action. Goalies are a special lot that are called upon to be both cerebral and extremely athletic. They must know the tendency of every opposing skater, the opposing coach, be able to dive, flip skate side to side, bend in every direction and thrive on the pressure of being his team’s last line of defense. The net-minder must be able to deal with the highest of highs and lowest of lows…and live with the fact that both can occur within milliseconds of each other. This game followed that template to the letter right off the opening faceoff.
The first quality scoring chance of the contest came when Dustin Brown drove the length of the ice, danced between Canadian players and shimmied the puck into Roberto Luongo’s pads. The puck dangerously teetered on the goal line before completely snuffed out by Canada’s net minder. The intensity of the game was up to every expectation as both teams executed a few good offensive plays only to be thwarted by strong defense. However, at 12:40 of the first period the States became a bit shaky in the defensive zone, allowing three good scoring chances by Canada before they could get it down ice for the no-touch icing call. Right off the face-off Mike Richards muscled his way through U.S. defenders, pried the puck free, and blistered the puck on goal, it was saved by Ryan Miller but Jonathan Toews picked up the rebound and floated it over Miller’s shoulder. Just at the vulcanized rubber rippled the twine and gave Canada the 1-0 lead, the fans to begin several sing-song chants in support of their team. The atmosphere is electric and can literally be felt by hockey fans everywhere…through the television screen even! This marked the first time in this tournament that the United States have trailed in a game which added to the fact that Canada was 4-0 when scoring first in the Olympics, fans gritted teeth in hopes that it wasn’t going to go sliding off an icy cliff for the “home team.” We didn’t even get to release our clinch because shortly following the goal a penalty was whistled on Bobby Ryan as he tripped Danny Heatley behind the Canadian net at 14:02. The high octane power play of the Canadians is nothing to play with if you are an opponent, fortunately with good goaltending and outstanding defense featuring players readily giving up the body to block shots, the one goal deficit was maintained.
The final two minutes were carried by the U.S.A. exemplified best by the closing moments as Ryan Callahan brought the period to a close by breaking free down the right boards and smoking a low laser that Roberto Luongo shuttered aside with a quick left pad. The puck rattled into the corner as the horn sounded to end the first third of the game. Players gathered on the half boards and it certainly wasn’t to discuss the impact that playing this game would have on U.S. / Canada political relations. Corey Perry threw a cheap shot to the back of the head of Jack Johnson after the whistle…refs must have missed that one. After one, Canada led 10-8 in shots and 1-0 on the scoreboard.
The second period opened with two faceoff wins the by the states. The first one was of the normal variety; the second looked more like a rugby scrum featuring two Canadians on their knees poking at the puck with the butt end of their sticks. The U.S. controlled the play and lived through a brutal cross check by Joe Thornton which went unnoticed by the officials. This pattern of seeming indifference by officials toward transgressions by players rightfully ended as Ryan Malone was ticketed for slamming a Canadian player to the ice via the knob of a stick to the nose of an opponent…it was impossible NOT to call that act of lacking judgment. The best chance on that power play was a great short handed rush by the United States. The intensity was being ratcheted up minute by minute. The U.S.A. put on a shot blocking clinic while Canada continued to make Ryan Miller stand strong between the pipes. The U.S. failed to convert on two power play opportunities and it cost them dearly as Canada ran the count to 2-0 at 7:13 when Corey Perry deposited a Ryan Getzlaf rebound past an abandoned Ryan Miller. This had become one of those contests where it was clear that had Canada gone up 3-0 it almost certainly would have been curtains. Time ticked by and with each minute leaving the clock, Canada’s goaltender Roberto Luongo became more and more of a liability. He was unable to control the puck with any level of certainty. Long rebounds and simple saves being turned into adventures would be the story for the remainder of the game in reality. The U.S.A. needed to open a shooting gallery on the shaky backstop in order to wrestle away control of this game. Tension at a fever pitch and momentum with the Olympic visitors from the south, the U.S.A. cut the lead in half at 12:44 on a play which took full advantage of Luongo’s unsteady play in goal. Patrick Kane blasted a shot toward home, Ryan Kesler tipped it into Luongo’s glove, he couldn’t handle it and watched in horror as it flipped out of the big mitt and into the goal to breath life into the opportunistic young men in blue jerseys. The period was finished off with a ton of momentum for the U.S. and plenty of good luck as Ryan Miller made two amazingly lucky saves…one he literally couldn’t see through bodies, he just blindly reached out his glove and it was a “look what I found moment,” the other looked like a pop-up at Sky Dome instead of a hockey puck.Without further damage on the board business had certainly picked up on the strength of great chances by both sides. After two periods it was 2-1 in favor of Canada who led in shots 25-23.
During the third frame, it was painfully clear that Roberto Luongo lost the edge and the U.S.A. needed to shoot and shoot and shoot some more in order to ensure that this game would be tied early enough so a concerted effort could be put forth to gain the go ahead marker and take the Gold Medals back home. Canada got away with letting off the gas against Slovokia as Pavel Demitra couldn’t convert on two chances at the doorstep with under thirty seconds to go in a 3-2 game.Canada coasted with a 3-0 lead in that game and saw the Slovaks pick up the momentum outwork the red shirts and by all rights should have very well won the game. Unable to learn from the previous opponent’s misfortune it seemed like every American fan was yelling “shoot the puck on him, he’s lost it” but the players insisted on being far too cute in trying to put together more impressive looking plays whether it be passing between the legs, dropping passes blindly to a trailing teammate and/or pounding one timers that went wide. Luck was going the way of the blue squad as Canada hit three posts and Ryan Miller was his “usual” outstanding self time and again. Miller stood on his head as the ten minute mark came and went, he held the Canadians at two as chances and block shots mounted up. He got some great help as Sidney Crosby barreled in all alone only to be slowed by the duo of back-checking Patrick Kane and poke-checking goaltender with 3:15 left in the game.
The game was becoming very even in many statistical categories and Luongo had the building on pins as needles as he’d done nothing to indicate that he’d settled down at all. Canada led in faceoff wins by a scant one at 27-26 as a huge one loomed which prompted coach Ron Wilson to call a U.S. timeout to formulate a strategy. A few good chances came from the play and Ryan miller was pulled with 1:29 to go in the game. Canadian coach Mike Babcock saw something he didn’t like so he used his timeout just a few seconds of game play later. Ron Wilson used it to his advantage as the red, white and blue put shot after shot toward the net and Luongo’s inability to clamp down a rebound cost them as Zach Parise collected a rebound and slammed it by to tie the game with a mere 24.4 seconds to go. The Canadians were outworked on the play that saw three blue shirts in position behind the red defenders. The pressure didn’t stop there as a few more chances at Luongo finished off regulation time.
Unlike any Olympic games before or the normal NHL routine…this would be a twenty minute sudden death overtime to be played four on four, to be followed by a shootout if things hadn’t been decided yet. Canadian fans were very nervous, having given up momentum, the lead and idly sitting by as a sloppy and uncertain goaltending was allowing the neighbor from the south to take control of “our game.” Their worst nightmare nearly came true early on in overtime as Jamie Langenbrunner went streaking up the middle and the puck was laced through traffic and smacked the tape of his stick just as he broke through the defense but just a whisker off sides. That was going to be it but since it wasn’t the U.S.A. continued to play wonderful defense and test the ever increasingly non-reliable backup to Marin Brodeur. The tension was palpable as the eventual MVP of the tournament Ryan Miller made four spellbinding saves, one better than the next. Then seemingly out of nowhere Jerome Iginla picked the puck off the boards to the right of Miller and as he was falling found Sidney Crosby breaking in on goal. The perfect pass allowed “The Kid” to make one move and slash the puck through Miller’s closing pads and into the net to end an epic battle at 7:40 of overtime. The chaos was on. As it turns out, the Canadians had just enough All Star caliber talent to allow them to coast around at times during two and a half periods of its last two games and still pull out two nail biting wins.
This was a contest for the ages. One team had ultra talented veterans mixed with some young guns with playoff experience, the other stocked with young upstarts who weren’t given much of a chance to make it very far at all. The teams combined for an epic battle that featured some great play in all phases of the game. Canada led in shots 39-36 at the conclusion of the action. The win gave Canada the one medal it “couldn’t go without” and the bitter loss gave the U.S.A. the largest ever total medal tally by any one country as it ran the total to 37 in all for the United States. Sappy fans will often say that “it was a game that we wish nobody had to lose” but we all know that one team has to win in the end…in this case it seems that the true winner was the game of hockey. Just as we wondered…it had to be an amazing experience being in that arena. What a game. What a sport.Who hopes the NHL players are allowed to play in Russia in four years?
About the Author
Written by Daryl Miller
I'm a lifelong sports fan. From short track auto racing, hockey, baseball, football and everything else...I love it.