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Team Canada fulfills golden destiny

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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 Jarome Iginla, digging the puck loose along the boards, feeding Iginla, then breaking to the net. As soon as the return pass hit his stick he swept it beneath the goalie's pads before Miller, voted the tournament MVP, could get down. "I just shot it," Crosby said. "Maybe it went five-hole. It doesn't even feel real. It feels like a dream."

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 We want the U.S.A. with 14 minutes to go in their semifinal game against Slovakia, a wish they almost came to regret.

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 Ron Wilson the day before the game. "They're the best team, and they're playing in their damn backyard. We'll probably have a total of 300 people rooting for us in the entire building. I'll tell you one thing: We're not going to survive if we hide in a foxhole. We're not going to sit back. We will force them to make mistakes. I just hope our young guys play the game of their lives."

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 Mike Babcock.

It was the same challenge the Americans faced in trying to get to Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo. "The way to counter their crashing our net is to do the same thing to them," said U.S. captain Jamie Langenbrunner. "That's been our strategy all along. If any of these top goalies see the puck, they'll make the save."

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 Brooks Orpik checked Dany Heatley into the U.S. bench. WIth every shift, the underdog Americans looked more confident. Still, it was Canada that struck first, scoring at 12:50 of the first period when Jonathan Toews, voted the tournament's top forward, forced defenseman Brian Rafalski to turn the puck over as he started up the ice, allowing linemate Mike Richards to pick it up. The rebound of Richards' shot came right to Toews, who buried it for his first goal of the tournament (he also had seven assists and a +10 rating) and a 1-0 lead. Canada outshot the U.S. 10-8 in the opening frame, but the U.S showed more speed and, with Miller playing well, a growing sense that they could play with the powerhouse Canadians. "Obviously, we felt comfortable," said U.S. forward Ryan Kesler.

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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 Ryan Whitney deflected a centering pass from Ryan Getzlaf directly into the slot, where an uncovered Corey Perry pounced on it and snapped it past Miller. 2-0 Canada. The building seemed to be swimming in red and white -- very little blue -- as fans and flags all gyrated wildly in hopes that the rout was on. But six minutes later the U.S., still playing with poise and grit, got that one back when Patrick Kane, a no-show in the first period, snapped a shot from a low angle that was tipped past Luongo by Kesler at 12:37.

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 Zach Parise, the Americans' best forward in the game, pounced on the rebound and slid it past Luongo to tie the game, 2-2, with 24.4 seconds left. Except for the U.S. players celebrating on the ice, and a handful of Yanks in the stands, you've never heard a building go from bedlam to silent so fast.

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.