VANCOUVER -- The funny thing was,
But just when you think the great ones are mortal, capable of invisibility in what was likely the biggest hockey game on home soil in Canada's history, they remind you why they're special. That's what Crosby did at 7:40 of sudden-death overtime to dash the gold-medal hopes of a young, gritty American team who'd forced the extra period with a goal with just 24.4 seconds left.
Crosby did it by working a give-and-go with linemate
Certainly, it was a dream matchup for North Americans, and a dream ending for the host nation, which now has won eight gold medals in hockey, one more than the Soviet Union. Crosby's goal also saved Canada from a day of national mourning, so great were their expectations for gold in this event. They started chanting
The U.S., undefeated before Sunday's loss, was the surprise team of the tournament. With an average age of 26.5 (19 of the 23 players on their roster were under 30), they were the youngest team in the Olympics, largely unknown to the American public, whose only real star was Miller, the best goalie in the NHL this year. "The Canadian players get paid an average of $3 million more than our guys," said U.S. coach
Wilson's strategy was clear from the outset of the gold medal game. The U.S. wanted to take advantage of their speed by throwing the puck in, forechecking two, sometimes three men, and if Canada broke out cleanly with an odd-man rush, depend on Miller to make the big save.
Canada's problem was to solve Miller, who had made 42 saves in Team USA's 5-3 win in last Sunday's preliminary-round clash. His goals against average coming into Sunday's game was a minute 1.04, and his save percentage was 95.4 percent. "We've got to figure out a way to get in front of him and disrupt him," said Canadian coach
It was the same challenge the Americans faced in trying to get to Canadian goalie
The worry was that the Canadians would score an early goal, as they did in their 7-3 route of Russia in the quarterfinals, and get the young Americans rattled. But it was the U.S. who carried the play early, banging bodies, most especially a hit in which defensman
In the second period, the Americans stuck to their game plan, throwing the puck in and forechecking, shooting from all angles and playing for rebounds or a tip. But the Canadians took advantage of another defensive miscue, when at 7:13 of the second period U.S. defenseman
So it was a one-goal game entering the third period. The shots were nearly even -- 25 for Canada, 23 for the U.S. In the first two minutes of the third period, the Canadians, coming out smelling blood, attacked hard and rattled shots off the post twice. But then, inexplicably, they abandoned the forecheck, sat back and let the speedy Americans carry the play. "We have a group that skates very well, so you can take chances," said Wilson afterward. "And we're backed up by arguably the best goalie in the world. It's a fun way to play."
On a couple of occasions the U.S., pressing to tie the game, had four of their five skaters inside the faceoff circles in the offensive zone. It was a recipe for disaster, and sure enough, with three minutes left Crosby picked up a loose puck at center ice and skated in for a clean breakaway. But he pushed the puck too far ahead of him racing into the zone, and by the time he caught up to it he was too close to shoot. As Crosby slowed to try to deke Miller, a backchecking Kane caught him and lifted his stick.
Staying aggressive, the Americans pulled Miller with 90 seconds to go. The Canadian fans, smelling the gold, were in a continuous roar as the U.S. won two straight faceoffs in the offensive zone. After the second, the puck squirted from behind the Canadian net to the slot, where Kane was the first to reach it. He whirled and fired. His shot deflected off Langenbrenner, who was just outside the crease, and
It seemed as if destiny might be at work. Two shots off the post in the third period by the Canadians. Crosby missing a breakaway. The U.S. pulling the goalie and then tying the game. It was as if that old magic zero was working its wonders, for every time a Winter Olympics had been held in a year ending in zero, the U.S. had won the gold medal in hockey. 1960. 1980. Now 2010?
But it wasn't to be. The Canadians, no longer sitting back in the overtime, which was played four skaters against four, had the better of the play from the start of the extra session, outshooting the U.S. 7-4, the last being Crosby's game-winner. The celebration it unleashed on the ice, in the building, in Vancouver, and throughout Canada was, well, epic: The perfect ending for what had become something of a fairy tale Olympics for the home team.
"They played a great game," said Wilson. "But at the same time, I think we played an equally great game. I couldn't have asked for more from our players. It's a shame both teams couldn't receive a gold medal today."
That was a sentiment unshared in the streets of Vancouver.