Spree pundits opine on the local
Feb 22, 2010
12:05 PMState of Play
USA over Canada: Unexpected? Yes. Miracle? No.
Almost immediately following Team USA's 5–3 preliminary round victory over Canada Sunday night, pundits and commentators were coining it one of the greatest upsets in hockey history.
Whoa, there! Let's tap the brakes for a sec.
Unexpected? Heck yes. But I'm stopping well short of ranking it in "greatest all-time upsets" territory. Isn't it more than a bit disrespectful to the Americans to make it out to be such a David vs. Goliath struggle? It's nowhere near the stratosphere of the "Miracle on Ice," and it's nowhere near as shocking as the US squad's 1996 World Cup upset of Canada.
To be sparkling clear, I'm not trying extinguish the nation's hockey pride with a bucket of ice water here. I'm as excited and proud as the next hockey-crazed Yank.
But put it this way: in expectation of the game this weekend, I was sure that at the very least, the US players could stay with Canada; it never entered my head that Canada's dream team would stage a throttling of their neighbors to the south, eh?
Brian Rafalski emerged as the game's first star, Ryan Miller's spectacular play aside. He's an undersized defenseman, but he's won a trio of Stanley Cups with two different teams, so he's no stranger to the big stage. Nor is ex-Sabre Chris Drury, who potted the critical tiebreaking goal in the second period. Jamie Langenbrunner, who also found the Canadian net, has won Lord Stanley's prize twice with two different organizations.
The leadership is in place, to be sure. Now glance at the rest of the US roster: For every "never-heard-of-'em" like David Backes or Ryan Suter, there's a proven goal-scorer like Phil Kessel or Patrick Kane.
And within that point may lay the key to a possible gold medal. What you have on Team USA is a wonderful mix of ground chuck and dazzle, sandpaper and skill. With the exception of Kessel, Kane, and Miller, name another superstar. Backes and Ryan Kesler have their offensive upsides, but their ticket to the NHL was the strength of their two-way play. Rearguards like Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, and Suter will never put up Bobby Orr numbers, but they will give you up to twenty minutes of steady, physical hockey.
The US roster comprises guys who know their role and accept it. You know, like any other team that's won a Cup, or any other title known to the hockey world. And, oh yeah, amazing goaltending also helps a lot. You get the feeling Brian Burke knew all this before he assembled the 2010 group.
Contrast this to the rosters of Canada, Russia, and Sweden, the chic picks for the medals. Each has assembled its own dream team. But, as it always seems in sports and any other walk of life for that matter, what's clear on paper becomes murky when put into practice.
What those three nations have are an imbalance of twenty-plus superstars who are accustomed to oodles of ice time and relatively free offensive rein. It doesn't help that fans and media second-guess their every move. Can you imagine the firestorm Up North if a national darling like Joe Thornton was passed over for a third-line grinder?
Skilled as they might be, you can't play Thornton, Sidney Crosby (a minus-three in the loss), Rick Nash, and Dany Heatley against the opposition's top line.
As blessed with talent as Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeny Malkin are, don't expect to see them racing back into their own zone to stop an odd-man rush.
And while the Sedin twins and Nicklas Backstrom can bury offensive chances aplenty, I've never seen them sprawl to block a slapshot or take their check hard into the boards.
MSNBC analyst Ed Olczyk, a member of the US's 1984 squad, offered this insight when told of the favored nations' spectacular array of talent: "There's only one puck." Hmmm. From Olczyk's lips to the Hockey Gods' ears.