Inside Olympic Hockey | U.S. hockey team sets miracle in motion

Forget the Winter Classic. Forget the Miracle on Ice. And definitely forget the “Mighty Ducks” (1992−1996) movies. This past Sunday was, quite possibly, the single greatest day of hockey you are ever going to see. Whoever is in charge of Olympic hockey scheduling is some kind of genius.

In the afternoon, it was the Czechs and Russians in the battle for Eastern Europe. In prime time, the United States and Canada were squaring off in the ultimate continental grudge match. Then, after most of the East Coast had gone to bed, Sweden and Finland were dueling in a rematch of the 2006 Torino gold medal game. It just doesn’t get better than that.

A lot was at stake this weekend, both in terms of the outcome of these Olympic games and the reputation of international hockey. The round−robin style of the Olympic hockey tournament divides the 12 competing nations into three pools, with the teams competing for one of the top four spots that earn a bye into the next round. The remaining eight teams each must play an additional game to advance to the next round of play for a shot at competing for a medal. While half the teams completed their final game of the first round on Saturday, it was Sunday’s slate that featured all the real gold−medal contenders.

All three of Sunday’s victors — the United States, Sweden and Russia — now occupy the top three spots in the standings, respectively. The other team to earn a bye, Finland, was also featured in action on Sunday, losing 3−0 to the defending−champion Swedes.

But do you notice something a little strange? Conspicuously missing from the top−qualifying teams is none other than the Canadians, the gold−medal favorite heading into the Olympics.

Moreover, the United States, touted as a major underdog prior to the start of the games, is sitting pretty at No. 1. Something is amiss in the hockey world, and there are a whole lot of nervous Canadians right now.

The United States and Sweden were the only two nations to earn the maximum nine points by winning all three of their games in regulation. But with 14 total goals scored compared to Sweden’s nine, the United States grabbed the No. 1 spot, rocking the hockey world.

The real shocker, though, is whom they had to beat to get there.

Few people expected the United States to put up much of a fight on Sunday when they stepped onto the ice against a proud and star−studded Canadian squad. But from the moment the puck was dropped, all of those watching could tell they were in for the game of a lifetime.

Just 41 seconds into the contest, defenseman Brian Rafalski — the oldest player on the American team — fired a shot from the blue line that deflected off Canadian superstar Sidney Crosby and in past goaltender Martin Brodeur.

It took eight minutes, but Canada finally got even on a tip−in from Eric Staal. The tie didn’t last long, though, and just 22 seconds later Rafalski struck once again, taking advantage of a failed clear by Brodeur, his former New Jersey Devils teammate, and potting his fourth goal for the Americans.

An exciting second period saw the Canadians tie the game up once more, only to see the United States regain the lead at 3−2 going into the second intermission. The stage was set for an epic final period.

In the final stanza, Team USA lived up to its reputation as a young but hard−nosed and fiery squad. At 7:09 of the third period, captain Jamie Langenbrunner deflected a shot from the blue line in past Brodeur on the power play to make the score 4−2 — the assist going to none other than Rafalski.

The Canadians, scrambling to get even, bombarded American goaltender Ryan Miller with shots and non−stop pressure. Crosby finally broke through with just three minutes remaining, pulling Canada to within one, but Ryan Miller stood tall for the red, white and blue the rest of the way, finishing with 42 saves to Brodeur’s 18.

It was a frantic final few minutes, as the Americans struggled to get the puck out of their zone even before Canada pulled Brodeur with just over a minute to go. Normally an advantage, this move only hurt the Canadians, as Ryan Kessler displayed incredible hustle and grit, chasing down a loose puck past Canada’s Corey Perry to bat the puck into the empty net for some insurance. With the score now 5−3, the outcome was no longer in doubt. The stadium was silenced. The nation was stunned.

With their remarkable feat, the Americans earned an extra day off, and they now await the result of tonight’s playoff qualifier between Switzerland and Belarus to find out their opponent for tomorrow’s quarterfinal. As for Canada, it must beat Germany tonight in order to advance. If it does, Russia will be waiting — the matchup that most pundits predicted for the gold medal match.

In Sunday’s other showdowns, Russia triumphed 4−2 over the Czech Republic thanks to a two−goal performance by Evgeni Malkin. In a repeat of the 2006 gold−medal match, Sweden glided past Finland 3−0, riding the stellar goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist, whose meager two goals against are by far the best of any starting goaltender so far in these Olympics.

Tonight will also pit the Czech Republic and Latvia against each other in a playoff qualifier for the right to face Finland in the next round, while Slovakia and Norway vie for a chance to take on Sweden.

It’s hard to imagine any more drama than we were already privileged to on Sunday, but from the looks of it, things are just getting started. It would be the upset of a century if Canada does not make it past tonight’s play−in game, but crazier things have happened.

After all, the United States did just beat Canada, right?