Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Team USA dashes Canadian hockey fans' expectations

Ryan Callahan and the United States sprint to a 6-0 lead after one period of Friday's hockey semifinal and cruise to a 6-1 win and into Sunday's gold-medal game.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010

VANCOUVER, B.C. The Canadians have been a happy folk for much of the past two weeks. They wear their flags like capes and their red maple leaf jerseys like government mandates and their hearts on their sleeves, especially where hockey is concerned. They turned out Friday for the men's semifinal between the United States and Finland -- not in droves, but in respectable numbers for a game in which Canada was not involved. And these were not fans who arrived early to the Canada- Slovakia game; the arena is completely emptied between games.

Nope, these were folks who had tickets and a dream -- a dream of seeing the United States lose to Finland. And my, were they unhappy for much of the day, until Antii Miettinen ruined Team USA's shutout with 5 minutes 14 seconds to play. Then Canada Hockey Place erupted.

Team USA's first-period barrage began so early and lasted so long that the hometown fans never even had time to put together a good "We want Finland" chant. Instead, they sat, stunned, silent and somewhat sullen, as the Americans scored six unanswered goals and held on for a 6-1 victory and a berth in Sunday's gold medal game.

Is there anything you can do when you fall behind 6-0 in the first period, Teemu Selanne?

"That's when you hope we play curling, and you can just give up and not put yourself on the line anymore," he said.

You forget, sometimes, what good goaltending can mean for a team -- until you see some really bad goaltending. Miikka Kiprusoff, a.k.a. "Kipper," entered Friday's semifinal against the United States with a .947 save percentage, even better than American Ryan Miller's .944. This matchup was billed as a battle of the goaltenders, which of course is silly because it's hard to fight someone who's nearly 200 feet away.

Maybe that's why Kipper decided to drift out of the net so often. Who knows? He was pulled midway through the first period after giving up four goals on seven shots. His replacement, The Other Niklas Backstrom, promptly gave up two goals in 15 seconds, then pitched a shutout the rest of the way.

Unlike bad goaltending -- the giant zit on the end of a hockey game's nose -- good goaltending can be invisible. Miller has amassed a 1.04 goals against average here and has stopped 103 of 108 shots, a .954 save percentage. He slipped out of the game with 8:29 remaining and was just as invisible in the mixed zone, gliding past reporters without speaking, but that may have been an attempt to redirect the spotlight onto his teammates.

"Not enough is being said about the guys in front of me," Miller said later. "We had a real team effort today."

This team is the creation of General Manager Brian Burke. Of all the roster choices he had to make, Miller had to have been the easiest. Before the Olympic break, Miller was second in the NHL with a .930 save percentage and tied for second in the league with a 2.16 goals against average for the Buffalo Sabres. (Caps fans, raise your hands if you're having Ryan Miller-induced playoff nightmares.)

While Steve Yzerman, GM of Team Canada, has been second-guessed from Newfoundland to Vancouver and back again -- Scott Niedermayer is washed up, Roberto Luongo should be the No. 1 goalie, and so on -- Burke had an easier time of it. He said last fall, long before the roster was named, that he would choose role players with some size because "that's how you win a short tournament."

"There won't be a penny bet on this hockey team in Vancouver, and that's fine with us," Burke said then. "We're going there to win. We understand that when people look at our team on paper, they're going to pick other teams to win. We feel we have the deepest pool we've ever had before, thanks to USA Hockey, but we don't have some of the big name recognition we've had in prior tournaments like this."

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