VANCOUVER – When you’re building an organization from the ground up the way Brian Burke is with the Toronto Maple Leafs, absolutely nothing is more important than having an ability to accurately judge hockey talent.
And if the way these Olympics have unfolded so far is any indication, the Leafs should be feeling optimistic about their long-term future. (Notice we said long-term there, eh.)
After all, it was Burke who, as GM of the Anaheim Ducks, allowed a legitimate starting goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov to go on waivers to make room in the organization for Jonas Hiller. (While we’re handing out bouquets here, one should also go to current Ducks GM Bob Murray for signing Hiller to a four-year extension worth $18 million recently.)
And it was Burke who compiled the roster of the U.S. Olympic team and included on it players such as Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan, two of a number of players who took shot-blocking to ridiculous levels in USA’s wildly entertaining 2-0 win over Switzerland in the quarterfinal Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s huge and that’s what I said about our team when we picked it,” said coach Ron Wilson. “We were looking for balance not all all-stars, guys who you have to twist their arms to get into shooting lanes. We’ve got a lot of guys who do that for a living. Timmy Gleason must have blocked six or seven shots. Chris Drury, who unanimously shouldn’t be on the team if the media picked the team, blocked more shots than (media) guys make typos in a day, and that’s a phenomenal number.”
It’s clear the Americans, who were something of a longshot to win a medal here, have something special going on. Despite the fact the game was so close on the scoreboard, the Americans dominated and held a huge advantage over the Swiss in skill level and the ability to create chances. And after three games in which he left almost everyone wanting more, Zach Parise scored both goals for the Americans and was brilliant.
“I just thought I was more patient with the puck and I was making better plays with the puck and getting more shots on net,” Parise said. “I had a little more energy. I felt like after the first two or three games I could play better and I really wanted to play better.”
The score of the quarterfinal game was close, but in reality, the ice was tilted in the favor of the Americans for most of the game. Aside from an initial burst in the first 10 minutes of the first period, the Swiss were badly outplayed and were lucky they had Hiller there to prevent them from being embarrassed by a team that has infinitely more skill with the puck than they do.
“You spend 80 percent of the game without the puck defending,” said Swiss winger Hnat Domenichelli. “You have no other choice. You have to defend, defend, defend against these big teams.”
Going into the semifinal against either the Finns or the Czechs, you have to like USA’s chance of advancing to the final and winning a silver medal at the very least. At no point during the game against Switzerland, when they continued to throw a barrage of shots at Hiller and have nothing to show for their efforts, was there ever any sense of desperation and panic in their game. The Americans have managed to assemble a humble, hard-working group of players, unlike in past games when they drew more attention to themselves with braggadocio and off-ice shenanigans than for anything they did on the ice.
The U.S. definitely showed its mettle when it had a goal disallowed at the end of the second period because time had run out. It came out very strong in the third and did not stray from its game plan.
“Not as much as you’d think,” said American winger Bobby Ryan when asked whether the disallowed goal took the air out of the team. “I think it was a unifying moment for us.”
Finally everyone will get to see how good this team really is. Until now, all of their games had been on MSNBC or CNBC, but the semifinal and final will be live on NBC.
It’s about time.
Ken Campbell is in Vancouver covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for THN.com. Read his other reports HERE.
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