Commentary

One win away from gold? Mind-boggling

Updated: February 27, 2010, 11:53 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Thirty years after the "Miracle on Ice," 50 years after the first miracle U.S. men's hockey win in Squaw Valley, another group of unheralded American players stands at the edge of greatness, at the edge of history.

The U.S. men's hockey team, the team GM Brian Burke said repeatedly wouldn't be anyone's pick to win a gold medal, will play for just that Sunday afternoon after pounding Finland 6-1 in semifinal action Friday afternoon.

That this group, the youngest team in this star-studded Olympic tournament, is 60 minutes away from a gold medal is shocking. How the Americans got here, by exploding on the hapless Finns with six goals before the game was 13 minutes old, is quite simply mind-boggling.

"I think you come into the game, you're mentally preparing for a close-checking game, and we kind of blew the doors out pretty early," admitted U.S. forward Dustin Brown. "From that standpoint, especially the fifth and sixth goals, you're kind of thinking, 'What's going on?'"

If the first 13 minutes were kind of a perfect storm for the Americans, and a perfect nightmare for the Finns, the game also reinforced this American team has in a matter of days become a mature and poised group.

The Americans did not run up the score, they did not hot-dog it or rub the Finns' noses in it, even when the game had clearly gotten out of hand. It is the mark of a team that has an excellent sense of self.

"At the end of the day, I think everyone knows what it's like to be on the other end of the stick," Brown said. "I think for us it was just a matter of honing in our game and keep playing the game the right way. If we scored six more goals, we scored six more goals, but we didn't try and get away from our game."

While the Americans awaited the outcome of Friday's second semifinal between Canada and Slovakia (the Canadians won 3-2), they got used to the idea of being on the edge of one of the greatest moments in U.S. hockey history.

"We couldn't really look forward to it until this point now, so we can really focus on it," said defenseman Erik Johnson, who scored his first goal of the tournament during Friday's first-period barrage. "It's something we dreamed about ever since we were little kids. That was our goal from the summer camp.

"I think maybe a lot of people didn't expect us to be there and maybe didn't expect us [to get there] as easy as it looked, but it was a tough road and every game was a battle," Johnson added. "Even the beginning of the game today was a battle to get that lead. Yeah, we have a lot of young, inexperienced guys, but we've got a lot of young energy and youthful enthusiasm that I think has helped us along, as well."

Can the Americans pull one more win out of their magic hats? USA coach Ron Wilson wondered if they can possibly be better than they were on Friday. "I hope we haven't peaked two days too early," Wilson said.

It was hard to tell if he was kidding, but there have been so few missteps with this U.S. team, maybe there is some reason for concern. But we don't think so.

Just like after the Americans' big win over Canada on Sunday and the Swiss in the quarterfinals, there was no wild display of jubilation, no premature euphoria after Friday's win, which is unusual in a group as young as this one.

The Americans have not trailed in the tournament. They have scored first in all six games and generally have scored early, which speaks to preparation and focus. They have taken only a handful of penalties. Apart from periods in the Canada game, the Americans haven't appeared to have suffered from any butterflies.

"We definitely wanted to get into that next game," Wilson said. "We feel we're prepared and we've gotten better every single game, which is key in a tournament like this."

Facing a veteran Finnish team whose roster included battle-tested players like Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Kimmo Timonen and Jere Lehtinen, the Americans simply steam-rolled them.

Even better, the Americans' top offensive player, Patrick Kane, enjoyed his best game of the tournament, scoring twice, and for the first time in the Olympics found space to work his magic with the puck. Another player who had struggled, Paul Stastny, also had his best game of the tournament with a goal and an assist.

"I've got to give them a lot of credit. They came at us hard, really hard," said Timonen, who echoed high praise from throughout the Finnish lineup. "We knew they were going to [play] hard, but I was surprised at how hard they were skating. Every turnover we made, it was 3-on-2, 2-on-1. They really played well."

And so it comes down now to one game for a team that few regarded even as a medal contender when this tournament began. One chance to join a handful of American hockey teams who carved out a unique place in the nation's sporting history.

If this young American team fears taking that final step, it has hidden those fears well.

"We believed in our group. We had a focus of coming here to win the gold medal," said captain Jamie Langenbrunner. "I believe we can win a gold medal, and now we've got that opportunity. We put a lot of work into these last two weeks, a lot of sacrifice by guys, and it's fun to have that opportunity now."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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