USA's mood subdued after upset win
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Take a bow, Team USA, a short one.
Take a break, a brief one.
And then get ready to find out if you're really worthy of a medal. Get ready to find out if Sunday's gut-wrenching 5-3 win over powerful Canada really does suggest you are ready to complete with the big dogs of this Olympic hockey tournament.
Classic? If Sunday's hard-hitting, see-saw affair doesn't qualify, then we're not sure how to measure such a thing.
The U.S. men's hockey team held off the powerful host Canadians to earn a bye to Wednesday's quarterfinals. It marks the first time the United States has beaten Canada in a men's Olympic hockey game since 1960 in Squaw Valley, where the Americans stole a gold medal from the favored Canadians and Russians.
"I still think we've got a long way to go," Team USA coach Ron Wilson cautioned. "There are some great teams out there."
He cited Canada as a team he thinks is still the best in the tournament despite the American's win, which forced the disappointed hosts into a qualifying game against Germany on Tuesday.
Wilson might be right.
The Canadians outshot the Americans 45-23 on the night, including 19-6 in the first period and 14-4 in the third period. After the Canadians drew within a goal at 4-3 thanks to Sidney Crosby's power-play goal with 3:09 left in regulation, the Americans were hemmed in their zone for about 1:20 before Ryan Kesler of the hometown Vancouver Canucks ended the drama with an empty-net goal.
"Yes, we put ourselves in an advantageous position," Wilson said. "But once we get to the game on Wednesday, I'm sure we're going to be playing an elite team and we're going to have to work even harder than we did today if we want to move on to the medal round."
Funny how these kinds of contests, the games that beforehand loom as "character" or "statement" games, become about something else after you've proven you have that character and made that statement.
It is so with the Americans.
Before Sunday, we wondered how they would respond to the pressure, to the significant jump in competition from their first two games against Switzerland and Norway, respectively. Then, when Brian Rafalski scored just 41 seconds into the game, those questions started to be answered. It happened when Rafalski scored again to give the Americans a 2-1 lead just 22 seconds after Eric Staal had tied the score.
"We did a good job responding to everything," said netminder Ryan Miller, who was spectacular in outdueling the incomparable Martin Brodeur in the Canadian net. "When things happened, we responded. We didn't get nervous or anxious. We kept playing."
For us, the balance of the questions were answered during those frantic moments late in the game when Canada poured on the pressure and peppered Miller with shots; the Americans were unable to clear the puck, literally hanging on. To spend a minute or so in your own zone, under siege, is an eternity.
"I know I was tired. I can't imagine those guys," Miller said of his teammates, who repeatedly dropped down in front of shots or flung themselves at Canadian attacks in a desperate effort to keep the puck away from their goal.
"Nerve-wracking," said Ryan Malone of those desperate seconds.
Lucky? Maybe. But maybe it was something else.
"I think you saw a lot of guys come together. I think guys stepped up, blocked some big shots, guys did the gritty, dirty things to win games," said forward Bobby Ryan, who earned an assist on Chris Drury's goal that put the Americans back on top 3-2 after Dany Heatley had tied the score at 2 early in the second period. "When you can say that about guys after you've known for a week and then played with them for three games, it's a pretty remarkable thing."
We watched the American players troop through the postgame mixed zone, stopping to talk to the dozens of reporters gathered there. There was no whooping, no hollering, no hyperbole about beating Canada or getting revenge for the loss in the 2002 Salt Lake City gold-medal game or anything of the sort.
"I think it's pretty evident that we're getting better each game," said Patrick Kane, who played with Kesler and Dustin Brown for much of the night and produced his best game of the tournament. "It's going to be interesting to see what this team can do in the quarterfinals and into the medal rounds."
Is it possible then, that in the process of answering questions about their own identity, the Americans somehow managed to turn this victory into just another game and instantly put it into perspective?
"It's just a game, it really is. It gets us a bye," Ryan said. "It gets us a couple days of rest, a couple of days of practice together, but other than that, I don't think people should read too much into it. We could see these guys again and it could be for a medal."
To suggest a medal game might be in Team USA's future somehow seemed presumptuous, if not preposterous, a few days ago. Now, it seems almost natural.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.