- Matt Kalman, Bruins reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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The 30th anniversary of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team will no doubt come up in conversation when the 2010 U.S. Men's National Team convenes in Vancouver for this year's Winter Games this week.
With a young team overall and injuries that have weakened its back end, the U.S. should be considered a long shot to even medal, let alone follow in the historic footsteps of Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione and the heroes of '80.
Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, one of many U.S.-born players inspired by that "miracle" in Lake Placid, N.Y., is realistic about the aspirations of his squad.
"If we win the gold, which is our goal, it won't be a miracle," he said. "Having said that, we're underdogs through a couple of teams, if not three or four."
Thomas is one of six Bruins players scheduled to represent their respective countries in Vancouver. Center Patrice Bergeron will skate for Canada, winger Marco Sturm for Germany, center David Krejci for the Czech Republic, and defenseman Zdeno Chara and forward Miroslav Satan (injury permitting) for Slovakia.
If the U.S. team, led by Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller and forwards Patrick Kane of Chicago and Zach Parise of New Jersey, is going to overcome the injury absence of defensemen Mike Komisarek and Paul Martin to advance deep into the tournament, Thomas knows that his cohorts have to play to their strengths.
"[We're] well-rounded. [We're] fast. [We're] aggressive in the way of puck pursuit," he says.
While the U.S. is in no position to overlook any other team (the U.S. finished sixth at last spring's World Championship and eighth at the '06 Winter Games), it could be difficult not to look ahead to the Feb. 21 showdown with Canada, which wraps up preliminary-round play. Prior to that game, the U.S. will face formidable, but lower-ranked, Switzerland (Feb. 16) and Norway (Feb. 18).
"You don't overlook anybody," said Thomas.
One player who'll be ready for that Canada-U.S. matchup should be Bergeron, whose reliability among the Bruins should translate to his homeland's team. While he's far from the biggest name on the squad, Bergeron could be vital to Canada's success with his versatility, faceoff acumen and penalty-killing skills. His quiet confidence might also pay off for the team that carries the heaviest burden as both a gold-medal favorite and the home team. The entire nation will be on the edge of its seat as the team sporting the Maple Leafs tries to make up for its seventh-place finish of '06 and capture its second gold in three Games.
"We have high expectations for ourselves, so I think it's fine," said Bergeron, who owns two gold medals -- one from a World Championship and one from a World Junior Championship. "That pressure from the fans and the whole country is something that I guess is normal. You want to win, especially at home like that. As a team, we have the same expectations and we want to do well."
While not as highly touted as Russia and Canada, Slovakia could make a splash if it can emerge from a difficult group that also includes Russia, the Czechs and Latvia. Chara will obviously be a huge factor for the Slovaks, who have never advanced beyond the quarterfinals of the tournament.
"Anything can happen. We all know that; we've all experienced that," said Chara, who's headed to his second Olympics. "Once the team gets into the flow and into that confident mood and we start winning games, I still believe we can beat anybody."
This will be Satan's fourth trip to the Olympics (including '94 as an amateur). He says nothing will ever compare to his first berth on the national team, but he's still excited. He's hoping that the familiarity among his teammates will pay off.
"We have a lot of experienced guys who have been around for a while and we've known each other for a long time," said Satan, who is so well-regarded by his country he was named to the Slovak team before he even signed an NHL contract this season. "So we've played together before."
However, the Slovak team might not be skating as a group again. And that just might be a little extra motivation.
"We all realize that for Slovakia, this is probably the last Olympics we're going to see this group of players," Chara said. "We all know that our team is one of the oldest teams and probably 70, 80 percent of the players are going to be retired or won't be on the team for the next Olympics. That's the way it is. We're extremely motivated to do well for the country, for the fans, because we know it's one of the last chances that we will have the team we've had."
Krejci, a first-time Olympian, and his Czech mates could stand in the Slovaks' way in the preliminary action. It has been 12 years since Dominik Hasek and the Czechs pulled off their own minor "miracle" in Nagano. Krejci was a teenager then and remembers the party that ensued when his countrymen returned with the gold. He likes his club's odds to accomplish that feat again.
"I think we have a pretty good team. Canada might be the favorite. But this is not the playoffs, this is not best-of-seven; this is one game -- you win, you go to the next round; you lose, you're out," said Krejci. "That can happen to anybody. If Russia's the favorite, or Canada, they can lose in the quarterfinal or semifinal and they're out. It's a pretty short tournament, so you've got to stay focused all the time, basically."
One country that's definitely keeping its aspirations low is Germany. Since NHL players started participating, the Germans have finished 8th, 9th and 10th, respectively. Sturm is a veteran of two of those Olympics (he was injured and did not go to Turin in '06), and he's confident there's a solid enough combination of experience and skill on the team to accomplish its goal, which is to "win against Belarus and then just play good against the Swedes and Finns."
Even that might be a tall order, but Sturm is determined to at least relish the opportunity.
"It should be fun. And that's what I always try to do there because there's not too many opportunities left to play for your home country," he said.
All the Bruins representatives should be able to enjoy themselves in Vancouver. Some, however, will have a better time and more to boast about when they come back than others.
Matt Kalman is the Bruins blogger for ESPNBoston.com.
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