VANCOUVER, British Columbia — If it happens, given the conditions that have plagued these Olympics, it might go down as the Miracle on Slush.
If youthful, fresh-legged Team USA can outskate big strong Team Canada for a victory here on Sunday, it might not rank with the 1980 gold medal-winning team's defeat of the Soviets. But it's going to rankle the host nation very, very much.
You could sense the looming showdown in the atmosphere at Canada Hockey Place on Thursday afternoon. As the U.S. team faltered briefly during a 6-1 win over Norway, the mostly Canadian crowd let its loyalties show with chants of "Let's go, Norway." The biggest roar of the day came when Norway's Marius Holtet fired a wrist shot past Ryan Miller to make it 3-1 midway through a wobbly second period for Team USA.
Everyone understands. If the intensity level was at 2 for this game, it will be set at a Spinal Tap-esque 11 Sunday.
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"Every TV set in Canada is going to be tuned in to this game," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said. "It's going to be a great day for hockey."
"Absolutely, I'm looking forward to it," St. Louis Blues forward David Backes said. "Every game you play, you're playing the best players in the world on the biggest stage, I think, that hockey's ever been on — the Canadian Olympics, in Vancouver, it's the 21st century here. Everyone in the world can see these games."
Backes was just getting warmed up: "To play a Canadian team that's favored, that's got all the talent they do, who knows how many Hall of Famers, guys that print their all-star tickets every year? That's a great test for a bunch of blue-collar Americans on Sunday."
Team USA was carefully selected by general manager Brian Burke and head coach Ron Wilson with two criteria: youth and speed. After the familiar bunch of veteran Americans went a humiliating 1-4-1 in Turin in 2006, it was time for change. When the U.S. team was introduced after the Flyers played Boston in the Winter Classic, the lack of household names was apparent.
Canada comes at you in waves of superstars: Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton, Martin Brodeur, Dan Boyle, Eric Staal and Flyers Mike Richards and Chris Pronger.
Team USA has a few veterans in captain Jamie Langenbrunner and Chris Drury. But the idea was to assemble some future household names: Cherry Hill's Bobby Ryan, Erik Johnson, Patrick Kane, Jack Johnson, Dustin Brown. They are already very good NHL players, familiar to serious fans of the league — but their stock is still on the rise as compared to the likes of Chris Chelios and Mike Modano.
Ryan, who plays for the Anaheim Ducks, scored the Americans' first goal of the tournament against Switzerland, taking some of the pressure off and allowing his teammates to relax a bit. They looked a little tight again against Norway, nursing a 3-1 lead in front of all those taunting Canadian fans, until breaking out for three goals in the game's final six minutes.
"They were trying to put a little whipped cream on top of the plays they were making," Wilson said. "That doesn't always work. We're overpassing, trying to beat people one-on-one with a little extra move between the legs. It doesn't matter who you're playing. That doesn't work."
Norwegian coach Roy Johansen has faced the U.S. and Canada. He said the toughest period of hockey his team has faced was the first period Thursday. The U.S. team is faster and forechecks more aggressively, Johansen said.
That is what Wilson wants. Trouble is, Norway was able to take advantage of the aggressive play for several odd-man rushes. That's one thing if you're playing Norway. If Crosby and Iginla are flying down on a 2-on-1, that's a whole different story.
"We almost have to worry about being embarrassed," Backes said. "We've seen how the Canadians can put the puck in the net. If we don't work hard and do the things we need to do in the game, the score can get lopsided in a hurry."
That's where Ryan Miller comes in. The Buffalo Sabres' lanky goaltender is accustomed to big-game hockey against the kind of talent Canada will send his way. As Wilson tries to establish his system and find the right line combinations, Miller can buy him and the rest of the team a margin for error.
"We're trying too hard to score," Wilson said. "We leave ourselves exposed and we're giving up a lot of outnumbered attacks. I love our goaltending. When we do make a mistake, I'm not always used to getting the big save the last two years. I can breathe on the bench now."
Two games against the Swiss and Norway are scant preparation for a matchup against Canada. But the U.S. doesn't have to win Sunday in order to have a chance to compete for a medal later. It just has to prove it belongs on the same rink.
"It's obviously another level of competition," Backes said. "I don't think anybody in the world would deny that. It's a game where you want to make a statement. We'll see what we're made of on Sunday."