With One Win Over Canada, Expectations Soar for USA Hockey Team

With One Win Over Canada, Expectations Soar for USA Hockey Team Realistic.

That was the word any American hockey fan had to repeat heading into this year's Olympics in Vancouver.

You had to be realistic. Sure, the Americans had a good team. They had a good general manager and a good head coach, a solid No. 1 goalie and a healthy balance of finesse and strength in the roster.

Last week, the thought of the U.S. winning gold was almost laughable, with the stacked rosters of Russia and Canada standing in the way. Did they have a chance to medal? Maybe, if they could catch a few breaks.

Now, those realistic expectations have been thrown out the window. The United States of America will be going for gold.

That's thanks to a thrilling 5-3 victory over the heavily favored Canadians on their home ice Sunday night, a game in which the U.S. played to its strengths and never trailed. If the United States can beat Canada (one day prior to the 30th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, no less), then what can't this team accomplish?

"We know we can beat anybody now," Brian Rafalski, who scored twice and notched an assist, told The Associated Press after the win.

The 36-year-old Rafalski is one of the few veterans on the young American team, and he said Sunday's win will be that much bigger for the twentysomethings on the American roster.

"It's great for our young players to get a win of this caliber against that type of team," Rafalski said. "Going forward, it sets the bar very high for us. It lets those guys know that we can possibly win this thing."

That feeling now spreads much wider than the American dressing room — it's stretching across the country. Those same fans who were hoping last week for the Americans to somehow get a bye to the quarterfinals are now mapping out the bracket to see the potential path to glory: Beat Switzerland or Belarus on Wednesday, find a way to beat either a solid Finland or Czech team, play for the gold.

While it won't be easy for the Americans, they won't be lacking confidence when they next take the ice. Part of that infusion comes from the performance of Ryan Miller, who made 42 saves and withstood an avalanche of an attack in the game's closing minutes to secure the victory. In the Americans' three games, he's posted a 1.67 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. He's given his teammates much more than numbers though.

"You give me a one-goal lead, and we have Ryan Miller? Well, I'll take my chances against any team," 23-year-old defenseman Jack Johnson told SI.com after Sunday's win. "Ryan? He's the best goalie in the world. He was absolutely phenomenal."

Miller, 29, greatly outplayed perhaps the best goaltender in history in Martin Brodeur, 37. The elder netminder made two major mistakes — one an ill-fated baseball swing at a bouncing puck that led to Rafalski putting the Americans up 2-1 midway through the first period, the other a poorly timed lunge at David Backes that led to Chris Drury's go-ahead goal late in the second. The miscues ultimately sunk the Canadians.

It wasn't the most beautiful display of hockey, and the U.S. needed its fair share of breaks, such as Sidney Crosby accidentally deflecting the first American goal past Brodeur and a pair of goals slipping through the tiniest of openings in Brodeur's equipment, but if they happened once, there's reason to believe they can happen again.

With the win now in the past, it's time to see how this young roster — average age of 26.5 — adjusts to the new pressure placed on its shoulders. If there was one way to catch a glimpse of that, it was watching them overcome a raucous environment on Sunday.

One of the more interesting aspects of Sunday's U.S. win was that the team wore replicas of the 1960 Olympic team — the last American squad to beat the Canadians in the Games. Whether they wear them again won't matter, because the Americans no longer need to look back five decades to find inspiration. Their improbable win gives them plenty to draw from now.

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