These are the victories that give fuel to fantasies at Olympus, that get underdogs thinking that the place atop the podium just might be theirs.
The US men’s hockey team is too young to appreciate how hard it is to win a gold medal. And it probably isn’t old enough to know that beating the Canadians at the Games is the key.
The Americans just went out and did it on Saturday, leaving their northern neighbors breathless en route to a stunning 4-2 victory in their group encounter at National Indoor Stadium.
“We showed we have a chance,” said goaltender Strauss Mann, whose mates need only beat the Germans on Sunday to clinch a quarterfinal spot.
This was only the fourth time in 102 years that the Yanks have beaten Canada at the Games and on every other occasion — in 1956, 1960, and 2010 — they’ve gone on to win a medal.
That would be a massive achievement for the youngest team the US has sent to the Olympics since 1994 and the youngest one in the tournament. Fifteen players are collegians and eight of them are 20 or younger.
But they know what’s required to succeed against seasoned international opponents. “Let’s play fast, let’s play in their face, let’s get the pucks, let’s be miserable to play against,” said Brian O’Neill, the only Yank with Olympic experience.
That was what USA Hockey was looking for when it had to throw a team together last month after the NHL decided that it wouldn’t send players to Beijing amid the pandemic.
“When we looked at the player pool available to us, we thought speed, skill, pace, and tempo was going to be the strength of our team,” said coach David Quinn. “It is kind of like putting a band together. You do not pick five lead singers.”
But bands usually have a few gigs under their belt before they play in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The Boys of Winter who won gold in Lake Placid were selected the previous summer and played more than 60 games before the Olympics, facing everyone from Harvard to the Minnesota North Stars to the Soviets. The 1994 team toured for six months and also played more than 60 games, making three trips to Europe.
This team was a hockey version of the “coalition of the willing,” most of them amateurs willing to leave their varsities in midseason, fly halfway around the planet hoping that they didn’t contract COVID along the way, and face a brutal draw that includes two of the three medalists from the last Games.
Even the Chinese, who are loaded with North American ringers who play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, figured to be a handful.
When the Yanks blitzed them, 8-0, in their Thursday debut, it widened some eyes. But what they did against the Canadians, who are older, bigger, more physical, and much more experienced, was an undeniable statement.
“The kids can play, that’s safe to say,” said Kenny Agostino, whose third-period slapper off goalie Ed Pasquale’s pads was the clincher. “It’s clear we’ve got a lot of speed and a lot of talent. But this was a man’s game today.”
The Canadians have 18 former NHLers who’ve played a total of 4,500 games, most notably captain Eric Staal, who won the Stanley Cup with Carolina and earned a gold medal with the 2010 squad. Their roster also features two of the top three picks in last year’s NHL Draft in Owen Power and Mason McTavish.
But the Americans more than matched them, getting three straight goals from captain Andy Miele, Ben Meyers, and Brendan Brisson after Mat Robinson scored after just 1:24. “We have a bunch of guys who compete,” observed Quinn. “They don’t back down.”
They also don’t slow down. The Americans were buzzing around the puck all afternoon, busting out quickly whenever the Canadians coughed it up. “You can’t feed their transition,” said forward David Desharnais. “That is exactly what we did.”
Most importantly, the Americans kept their composure. It took them only 70 seconds to draw even after Canada stung them right away. After they gave up a shorthander by Corban Knight when they were up, 3-1, they hung in until Agostino put them two up again.
But the US was most impressive in the final half-dozen minutes when it had to kill off a five-on-three penalty for more than half a minute, then skate the final 2:20 against an extra attacker after Canada pulled Pasquale.
That was medal-round equanimity and the Americans will need it when they take on the Germans, who have 10 men returning from the team that lost to the Russians in overtime in the 2018 finale.
“So we enjoy this game and then reset,” said Quinn. “We have to be ready to go tomorrow because tomorrow’s game is just as important.”
Even with a loss, the US is guaranteed a playoff game to get into the quarters. But their beating the Canadians told the Americans that they belong here even if it’s far too early to talk about another Miracle On Ice. “We still have a ways to go for that one,” mused Miele. But this is where the dream starts taking shape.