Certainly, the reward will be greater Sunday in the Olympic final, but the game against Finland was about as citius-altius-fortius as American hockey ever has been. Battling the Finns and the shadow of Team Canada's dominant quarterfinal performance against Russia, the Americans stormed to a 6-1 win that sucked the oxygen out of Canada Hockey Place while stretching the bounds of credulity.
For all the heat USA coach Ron Wilson takes with the bumbling Maple Leafs, he should get a lifetime get-out-of-jail free card even in Toronto if the Americans win the gold. You give a coach a few players -- a dancing Patrick Kane, say, or an impregnable goalie like Ryan Miller -- and suddenly his hockey IQ jumps 50 points.
Wilson has done some of his best work in the tournament with Kane. He took him off the No. 1 line with Paul Stastny and Zach Parise and gave him some players in Ryan Kesler and Dustin Brown who do the heavy lifting, freeing Kane to fingerpaint like few forwards can. The result: A pair of goals, five shots and a plus two rating. As Wilson noted, if Kane weren't drawing a penalty, he was creating a scoring opportunity almost every time he was on the ice.
"A gold medal would be unbelievable," Kane said after the game. "It's something you see so many athletes work so hard for. For me personally, I know I'm pretty young at 21, and I hope I'll have a couple of more opportunities. But I never really won anything big in my life. The U-18 world championships, but nothing like a Stanley Cup, and Olympic gold or a world junior. You mention the Olympics, you get one chance every four years. To do it this year in my first opportunity would be very special."
"We're very excited about the opportunity we've been given, with so many of us at a young age," defenseman Jack Johnson said. "This is the most unselfish team I've ever played with. Every single guy on that team will lay it on the line on Sunday. Diving headfirst into shots. Getting pucks out at the blueline. No one cares who scores the goals." This esprit d'corps was furthered by the complicity of the Finns, normally tough customers who took a knee frighteningly early. Now empty net goals are routine in hockey. They usually occur in the last minute, however, not in the first 124 seconds.
But then there was the curious case of Finnish goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. That's "Miikka" with two i's', two k's and no judgment. Sure, Phil Kessel with his turbo-charge speed was bearing down on the puck rolling toward the Team Finland net, but Kiprusoff was dilatory in leaving his crease to play it. And when he finally did get to the puck, he didn't bump it to the side boards but made a laughably feeble clearing attempt that might have gone all of 25 feet, directly to Ryan Malone. This was the one saving grace of the play: The pass was on Malone's tape. He rifled it into the yawning yet, and the rout was on.
There is no telling how the goal ultimately will affect Kiprusoff's career. (Our Finnish is sketchy, but the suspicion here is the Helsinki papers are urging him to defect.) When the brooding Tommy Salo of Sweden ducked on a shot in the 2002 Olympic quarterfinal in a stunning loss to Belarus, he was essentially finished as a quality goalie. But you can hazard a pretty reasonable guess as to the short-term effect on Kiprusoff.
To recap: At 6:22, Parise scored a power-play goal after a slick cross-crease pass by center Stastny, who finally introduced himself to the tournament. At 8:36, Erik Johnson scored a power play goal after a bad boarding penalty by defenseman Tony Lydman. At 10:08, Kane scored on a backhand on his own rebound. So after giving up four goals in 180 minutes of Olympic hockey, Kiprusoff allowed four in about 10 minutes. The best goalie in the tournament summarily took a seat at the end of the bench. Again, because this is the Olympics and we want to emphasis the positive about human striving, we are pleased to note that although Kiprusoff couldn't find the puck, he was able to locate a baseball cap.
His replacement, Niklas Backstrom made a quick save, but then was beaten twice in a matter of 15 seconds --- Kane with Brian Rafalski, who has had an exceptional tournament, grabbing an assist, and then Stastny after Parise stripped Finnish defenseman Sami Salo of the puck.
At this point the Finns weren't playing a bad road game. They were playing a bad road hockey game.
"This is something you don't want to experience very many times in your career," Teemu Selanne said. "Being part of a game that was over after six minutes. Losing is fine, as long as you play your best and give everything you have, but losing like this, it sucks. There was no business for us today ... We fall behind 2-0 on a couple of lucky bounces. Four to nothing, six to nothing, at that point you wish you could play curling."
The six goals tied a U.S. Olympic record for most goals in a period. Everyone checked the Olympic information system for a statement from IOC president Jacques Rogge about the lack of parity in men's hockey.
Wilson lifted Miller, sitting on a shutout, with 11:31 left in the third period and the score still 6-0. He inserted Jim Sorgi. That is pure comedy gold -- hockey style.
After a laugher, Team USA will see Sunday if it is worthy of a weightier gold.