VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The United States pulled off its biggest Olympic hockey upset since the Miracle on Ice, stunning Canada 5-3 on Sunday to advance to the quarterfinals of an already mixed-up tournament.
Brian Rafalski scored two goals and set up another, and Ryan Miller held off a flurry of shots to lead the Americans.
“We know we can beat anybody now,” Rafalski said.
One day short of the 30th anniversary of the country’s greatest hockey victory – the unfathomable win over the Soviet Union in Lake Placid – these underrated Americans were faster, more disciplined and more determined than Canada’s collection of all-stars.
Canada outshot the U.S. 45-23 yet couldn’t badly dent Miller, the goalie the Americans felt could best stand up to all of Canada’s might. He did just that, making 42 saves in the victory of a lifetime.
These Americans didn’t believe in miracles. They just believed.
Depending on the later Finland-Sweden game that concluded hockey’s Super Sunday in Vancouver, the United States could go into Wednesday’s quarterfinals not only as a group winner but as the top-seeded team, something almost no one predicted when the tournament began.
Canada, the gold-medal favorite, was expected to coast into the medal round. But now, after nearly losing to Switzerland and being outplayed on home ice by the Americans, it must win a play-in game Tuesday to reach the quarterfinals. The Canadians still could win a gold medal, but now face a much tougher road that would include an additional game.
“We’re here to be the last ones standing and we’re still alive,” Martin Brodeur said. “We’re throwing 45 shots at these goalies and they are making stops facing forward, backward, sideways. Eventually we’ll be more successful.”
Chris Drury, a former Little League World Series star, and Jamie Langenbrunner scored to put the U.S. up 4-2 and hold off a relentless late surge by Canada that included Sidney Crosby’s power play goal with 3:09 remaining.
Miller made an exceptional save on Rick Nash’s shot from the slot with two minutes left to preserve it, and Ryan Kesler put it away by swiping in an empty-net goal with one hand with 45 seconds remaining.
“He made some really key saves in the third period and was the difference,” Canada forward Eric Staal said.
Rafalski, Langenbrunner and Drury are three of the older, steadying hands on one of the youngest U.S. Olympic teams in history, one that averages five years younger than the 2006 team that didn’t medal in Turin.
“It’s great for our young players to get a win of this caliber against that type of team,” Rafalski said. “Going forward, it sets the bar very high for us. It lets those guys know that we can possibly win this thing.”
The U.S, supposedly a tier below the Canadians, Russians and Swedes, got exactly the start it wanted. Rafalski’s slap shot from the right point 41 seconds into the game deflected off Crosby’s stick and past Brodeur, the best goalie of his generation but not the better goalie in the game.
“We wanted a good start but that was better than expected for sure,” forward Patrick Kane said.
Staal tied it by deflecting Brent Seabrook’s shot from the right circle at 8:53 – one of 19 that Canada took to the Americans’ six in an up-tempo first period.
Just when it appeared Canada would blunt America’s early momentum, Rafalski scored 22 seconds after Staal’s goal following a rare misplay by Brodeur. The goalie threw the puck up the middle of the ice into traffic, Rafalski swooped in and snapped off a shot that a screened Brodeur apparently didn’t see.
It was Rafalski’s fourth goal on only six shots in three games, or as many as the defenseman has all season with the Detroit Red Wings.
The Canadians spent most of the opening 10 minutes of the second period in the U.S. zone, getting a tying goal from Dany Heatley – his fourth in three games – but Miller gave up no others in the period.
The U.S. – 3-0 with three wins in regulation – didn’t cave under Canada’s pressure and, despite getting few good scoring opportunities until late in the second period, Drury restored the Americans’ lead at 3-2 with 16:46 gone. Drury took a shot from the far edge of the right circle and, after David Backes and Bobby Ryan missed followups, he skated in and finally got the puck past a prone Brodeur.
Minutes before, Brodeur – the NHL career victories and shutouts leader – took a shot off his facemask, causing him to remove it and examine it for damage.
While it was only a preliminary round game, tickets were scalped for four digits, and fans wearing Canada’s distinctive red maple-leaf jerseys lined up for hours outside Canada Hockey Place waiting to be admitted. They were raucous most of the game, but after Kesler scored the building was eerily silent.
“You just can’t beat it. It was fun,” said Paul Stastny, whose father, Peter, opposed that 1980 team while playing for Czechoslovakia. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime atmosphere.”
Hockey is more than a way of life in Canada. It is part of the nation’s very fabric, and the country’s 33 million residents embrace their team – and curse at and agonize with it – with passion. Early estimates were that half the country planned to watch, and this performance won’t do much to calm the nation’s nerves.
Emotions were in play for the United States, too, with the Miracle on Ice anniversary. The Americans took a page out of 1960, too, by wearing uniforms nearly identical to those of the gold-medal winning team at Squaw Valley.
U.S. team officials ringed the team’s dressing room with motivational messages, such as “Be Brilliant in the Basics” to remind that Olympic games are won with team play, good goaltending and attention to detail, not necessarily by the team with the biggest names. They got all the above.
And the Miracle on Ice team? There’s a link to this team: U.S. defenseman Brooks Orpik, steady throughout, is named for Herb Brooks, the 1980 U.S. Olympic coach.
Russia 4, Czech Republic 2: Evgeni Malkin scored twice and Russia bounced back from a shootout loss to Slovakia, beating the Czech Republic to reach the quarterfinals.
In a rematch of the 1998 Olympic gold-medal game, won 1-0 by the Czechs, Russia scored in every period to claim the top spot in Group B.
Viktor Kozlov also scored for Russia, and Pavel Datsyuk added an empty-netter.
Sweden played Finland in a late game.