By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2010; D01
VANCOUVER, B.C. -- When U.S. Olympic hockey player Jamie Langenbrunner scored in the final period Sunday night, a shot ricocheting off of his skate blade into the net, he just about jumped out of the arena with joy. This wasn't exactly a miracle on ice, but elements of it had become pretty difficult to believe.
An underdog U.S. hockey team hadn't merely given a powerhouse Canadian team a fight in a roaring, red-decked arena. By night's end, it had enlarged its medal hopes and left an entire nation bruised.
The Americans claimed their first Olympic victory in men's hockey over Canada in 50 years with a resounding 5-3 victory that featured opportunistic, inspired play by a team described as too young and too rough around the edges to achieve much here.
"We supported each other really well, and we responded really well when things went against us," said U.S. goalie Ryan Miller, who stopped 42 shots. "I like that from our team. Maybe it was because the pressure wasn't on us."
The victory pushed the United States into the gold-medal discussion, while sending nearly all of Canada reeling at the result. In an Olympics in which Canadian athletes have thus far failed to meet medal expectations, hockey was figured to represent the one sure thing.
"It proves to ourselves that as a young team, when we're up against a daunting task, we can play our game and do what we were brought here to do," U.S. forward David Backes said. "Do something special."
This was not an elimination game, but it was an emotional, nationalistic and testosterone-laden one. The winner clinched Group A and got a bye into the quarterfinal round and a possible No. 1 seed; the loser was expected to get another qualifying game Tuesday -- that and a severely bruised ego.
"We got to take a look at the tape and find a way to get better and go from there," Canada Coach Mike Babcock said. "There's no question we share a border. We all play against each other all the time. . . . The reality is there's a rivalry and you want to be the best."
Langenbrunner's late goal on a power play was really an inadvertent deflection of a slap shot by Brian Rafalski with just more than 12 minutes remaining, securing Rafalski's stature as the hero of the day. He had a hand in three goals; he scored two in the first period, and this one seemed to put the victory out of reach. Miller shared in the night's glory, fending off a barrage of late shots after a long night in which Canada outshot the United States 42-18.
The game was reminiscent of Canada's narrow victory over Switzerland in a shootout Thursday; the Swiss goalie also stopped more than 40 shots.
"We're throwing 45 shots at these goalies," Canada goalie Martin Brodeur said, "and they're making stops facing forward, backwards, sideways."
The Americans wore their 1960 Olympic jerseys in tribute to the first U.S. hockey team to win an Olympic gold medal. It was during that tournament that the United States last beat Canada in an Olympic men's hockey game, prevailing 2-1. It was also 30 years ago to the day Monday, the U.S. Olympic team beat the Soviet Union in its now legendary "Miracle on Ice" game.
Sunday's contest throbbed with energy well before it even got under way. Canadian great Wayne Gretzky attended, and U.S. Olympic legend Jim Craig showed up. The vast majority of fans wore official Team Canada hockey jerseys. Many sported red wigs or dyed hair, red-and-white top hats, red-painted faces or chests, and Canadian flags.
There were plenty of signs: "Do you believe in miracles? NO!"; "Canada tastes victory"; "Sidney will you marry me?"; Hockey is Canada's game!"
"When you looked up, everything was red and white," U.S. Coach Ron Wilson said.
Though Canada fought back in the third period when Sidney Crosby took a feed from behind the net from Rick Nash, sending it to the left of Miller with 3 minutes 9 seconds remaining, it was too little, too late.
Canada's hopes came to an end when Ryan Kesler scored an empty-net goal with 44 seconds left.
In the second period, Canada's Dany Heatley had tied the score at 2 at the 3:32 mark, poking a deflected shot from Jonathan Toews into the right corner of the net. The U.S. team regained the advantage, however, after a pile-up in front of the net resulted in a goal by Chris Drury, who jumped on the puck after a shot by Bobby Ryan. Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur was out of the net, and defenseman Dan Boyle tried to make a diving stop but missed.
A U.S.-dominated first period quieted the place fast. With Canada Hockey Place rocking, Rafalski gathered a simple pass at his blue line, sized up the situation and fired a shot. It nicked the skate blade of Crosby and ricocheted over Brodeur's shoulder into the net. Just 41 seconds had expired.
"That was how you draw it up if you had the perfect game plan," Langenbrunner said.
Just more than eight minutes later, Canada's Eric Staal redirected a slap shot by Brent Seabrook past Miller, tying the score and reawakening the home crowd. Once again, though, the Americans seemed determined to dial down the noise. Just 22 seconds later, Rafalski slipped inside Canada's defensemen, flipping the puck unassisted under a diving Brodeur for a 2-1 lead.
"Emotionally, we need to make sure we're not going to get too high," Miller said. "We've got to keep the ball rolling."