VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Two little American boys decked in red, white and blue waved a pair of home-made posters that read: "Finnish 'em!" The U.S. men's Olympic hockey team granted their wish — in 13 high-flying minutes that left Finnish forward Teemu Selanne wishing he were on the curling team.
Team USA scored six first-period goals against Finland, including a flurry of five in a span of 6:24, and wound up with a surprisingly easy 6-1 win and a spot in Sunday's gold medal game.
"That's when you hope we play curling and you can just give up and not have to put yourself on the line anymore," Selanne said, half-kidding, referring to curling's mercy rule. "Six-nothing in 12 minutes? You can't bounce back anymore from that."
The largely Canadian crowd was pulling for the Finns. The only American who got a big cheer during introductions was Ryan Kesler, who plays for the hometown Canucks. But Canada fans spent much of the game subdued, flooding the concourse snack bars and souvenir stands after the first period goal-fest. In the final minutes, it was the U.S. fans celebrating and chanting: "We want Canada! We want Canada!"
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Team USA, an inexperienced and unheralded bunch, has yet to trail in this tournament and is the only unbeaten team remaining with a 5-0 record. It will play Canada on Sunday for gold. This is just the second time the U.S. reaches the championship since the 1980 Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid.
NBC will show the gold medal game live in all time zones (3 p.m. Eastern). A rematch of the U.S. 5-3 quarterfinal win over Canada, it will likely be the most-watched hockey game in North American history.
"That's what everyone wants to see, especially after the last game, which was a really entertaining great game," said U.S. forward Patrick Kane, who scored two goals against Finland. "We don't care who we play. We just want to win the gold medal. I'm sure from a fan standpoint, they want to see a USA-Canada gold medal game. We played them once and proved ourselves, and would be ready to play again."
The U.S. players certainly will be well-rested after Friday's lopsided semifinal.
The thumping began just over two minutes into the game, when Finnish star goalie Miika Kiprusoff came out to clear a puck and his weak pass was stolen by Ryan Malone of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Malone, eyeing the open net, knocked in a wrist shot to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead.
Zach Parise of the New Jersey Devils and Erik Johnson of the St. Louis Blues scored two quick power play goals at 6:22 and 8:36 to open the lead to 3-0. Finland called a timeout. Their coach, Jukka Jalonen, decided to leave Kiprusoff ("Kipper") in goal. The Calgary Flames goalie was, after all, having a great tournament thus far. He had allowed just four goals in 75 shots entering the semifinal.
But 10 minutes into Thursday's game, he allowed his fourth in seven shots when Kane collected his own rebound and slipped it under Kiprusoff. Disgusted, the goalie walked off the ice. It appeared he took himself out of the game, but Jalonen said after it was a coaching decision. Kiprusoff has not exactly endeared himself to Finnish fans after declining to play in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics and stating he would play here only if he was promised he would start.
Asked about being taken out of the net, he said: "It's the coach's call. I think he made the right one."
Kiprusoff was replaced by Niklas Backstrom of the Minnesota Wild, who didn't fare much better. He allowed two goals in 15 seconds, the first by Kane and the second by Paul Stastny to make it 6-0.
"It was a crazy 12 minutes to be part of," said Kane, a 21-year-old who plays for the Chicago Blackhawks. "I have never been a part of anything like that. It felt like we were scoring every shift. It was pretty amazing."
Added Kesler: "I think we surprised them a little bit. We got a gritty, almost lucky goal to start off with and then we just kept coming in waves. It was almost like we were skating downhill and a lot of pucks were going in the net."
After that, the U.S. sat back, played it safe, and felt very little pressure. The second period was scoreless, and U.S. goalie Ryan Miller, the Buffalo Sabres star, was pulled midway through the third period to ensure his health for Sunday. Backup Tim Thomas came in, and allowed a meaningless Finland goal with five minutes left to play.
Asked if the U.S. was really THAT good, Selanne replied: "No, not that good. They're a great team, we know that, but it's very disappointing we couldn't even have a chance to compete. They scored six goals in 12 minutes, and in this level, it's over."
Kesler said the team continues to enjoy its underdog status. No one expects us to win and for us to come out and dominate says something about our grit and character."
Coach Ron Wilson was pleased, but had one worry: "I hope we haven't peaked two days too early."