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Why Not Another Miracle?

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--The XXI Winter Olympiad is officially open. The United States finds itself in a familiar spot--a heavy favorite to take home the most medals. Of the 86 gold medals up for grabs in Vancouver, there is one in particular that the Americans have no shot of getting back to the States. This has nothing to do with the U.S. Customs agents or airline baggage restraints. Canada simply will not let this one slip away.

The Canadian men's hockey team carries the weight of expectation for an entire nation. Thanks to a young mogul skier named Alexandre Bilodeau, who finally ended the home-gold drought, there is a little less pressure on the hockey team; not enough for them to win Silver.

It is their national sport and you cannot fault citizens for demanding success so fanatically. In fact, it is like looking in a mirror. At the 2004 Athens Games, when the U.S. men's basketball team took their position left of center on the awards podium, our nation was in an equal inconsolable state of panic. Something was wrong with our televisions; gold looked more like a bronze. People called for the heads of USA Basketball executives that "let" this happen. We were left puzzled, "How can the 'Internationals' beat us at our own game?" Four years later, order was restored in the world of basketball, but it was no easy task. It took a new coach, a new cast of players with contractual ties, a ton of money and time to perfect the "Redeem Team."

But what if that Beijing 2008 team had failed as well? What if all those efforts to overhaul the identity wound up in the same fate? Disappointed would hardly scratch the surface; Americans would feel like their sport is lost forever. That is what the Canadians are facing if they fail to complete their 2010 mission. It could be even worse than my basketball analogy: A) basketball is one of, but not
the sport in the U.S., B) we at least received a medal in the previous Olympics, and C) the scene for American redemption was not on home soil. It is either a perfect storm or a storybook plot. No pressure, Sidney Crosby and company.

Poor Canada, but I have every right to wish the U.S. snatches that gold medal right out from underneath them. My heart will go out to all Canadian fans if it happens, and maybe even Sarah McLachlan can write a sappy song about the ordeal, but it will not stop me from celebrating a second-coming of the "Miracle on Ice." The competition is open, world-class, and no one "deserves" a gold medal. Each and every one must be earned.

Can the impossible be done...again?:

I like the Americans chances for gold--they have none. Stop me if you have heard this one before. The U.S. men's hockey team is comprised of youthful Olympic rookies. These players have even the most devout followers of the Stars and Stripes reaching for the stadium program with bewilderment. "Which one is Madano?" and "Where did Tkachuk go?" are the most common words on the lips of American fans.

Meanwhile, teams like the Russians have Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, and Malkin. They single-handedly outshine the entire corps of U.S. forwards by themselves. Fear not, All-Star lines are not always successful marriages [
see: Reasons Why Canada Did Not Medal in 2006]. Off the ice, the trouble of sharing the spotlight is well chronicled, but the real issue is in sharing the puck. There is that whole "setting up others to look better than yourself" thing that the prima donnas cannot grasp.

Fortunately, the wingers for the Americans are perfectly ego-free. Herb Brooks would be proud that grinders like Bobby Ryan are on the team while flashy players like Jason Pominville (Buffalo Sabres) and those whose fire for the Olympics may have burnt out--i.e. Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez (Montreal Canadiens)--are watching from home. What little success the U.S. has obtained in international competition has never been built on the back of the jersey. Regrettably, from 1981 until 2009, this adage was lip service and not responsibly upheld by the USA Hockey selection committee. In the seven Olympics Games since 1980, the U.S. has earned only one medal.

If names are what you
really want, look for Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel to have an international coming-out party. Everyone in the NHL knows these two--21 and 22 years of age, respectively--can fill the stat sheet with the best. Soon the world will know how great their upside is.

We may lack grizzly veterans, but we do have a Suter, two kids named Johnson, a Pavelski, and a Callahan. What good does this do? If you believe in historical parallels, the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" roster contained a Suter, a Johnson, a Pavel
ich, and an O'Callahan. Go ahead and call it a dumb coincidence of moderately similar (and relatively common) last names. However, there might be some channeled talent that accompany the surnames. For instance, the current Suter is Ryan, a blue-liner for the Nashville Predators. Oh, he also calls 1980 gold medalist, Bob Suter, "Dad." Gold medal luck does not need to rub off on him, it is in his genes.

As for the gold medal, hanging in the balance:

It
is the Canadians medal in the sense that this is their Olympics; other than that, nothing has been settled on the ice yet. At last check, the IOC is going to allow the teams to play out the games as scheduled. This is welcome news for all 12 competing nations that showed up in Vancouver with a belief they can win it all. Why not feel that way? Teams in the Olympic hockey tournament have a habit of shaking up the morning betting line more than a pre-schooler with an Etch-a-Sketch.

The reworked system for this Olympic competition is the best thing that could have happened to a USA Hockey program in a current state of flux. Experts feel it will be Sochi 2014 before the gap between old guard and contemporary youngsters is bridged. This is supposed to be the worst showing for the Americans since a sixth place finish in Nagano more than a decade ago. The tournament configuration might be the equalizer they need.

My bold prediction is that the Americans will still be playing hockey on Day 13 of the Olympics. Their draw does match them with the powerhouse host-nation, Canada, as well as a proven NHL goalie in Jonas Hiller from Switzerland. The U.S. could easily finish third in their pool. If this were any other Olympic Games, such a result would end their vacation well short of Day 13. Not in Vancouver 2010; the Americans are guaranteed
4 games. The three-pool format is such that not one country is eliminated after round-robin match-ups.

NBC will still attempt to market the February 21 pool-play showdown between the U.S. and Canada as "pivotal." While the U.S. would be thrilled with a win, the outcome means very little to either nation's medal aspirations. So if the U.S. wins that Sunday match-up DO NOT call it a "Mircale on Ice." Canada is nowhere near as cohesive a unit as the 1980 U.S.S.R. and the Americans are not as overwhelmed as then. It also lacks the same context (semifinals) to draw comparisons. Hyping it up as such might just spell a letdown in a possible rematch later in the tournament.

In actuality, the Americans could dress their equipment manager, play 3-on-5 with an empty net for all three periods, lose 38-0, and still take home the gold. In fact, the Americans could follow this formula for all three games in pool A. That is how great the system is.

Rather than eliminate teams after pool play (as is traditional) a shuffling process ensues. Countries are ranked 1-12 based on points (3 earned for wins), with tie breakers in goal differential, goals for, and 2009 IIHF ranking. The top four teams earn a bye into the quarterfinals. The bottom eight are relegated to compete 5 vs. 12, 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10, 8 vs. 9. This is the first game any team will play with elimination implications.

Hypothetically speaking, if Team USA were to somehow lose to Switzerland, Norway, and Canada all by that 38-0 score, they would have 0 points, a -114 goal differential, and 0 goals for. It may sound like the most devastating start in history, but the Americans would actually be in prime position for a podium spot. Crazy, huh?

If the top four seeds, those earning a bye, stay true to the experts' predictions, the U.S. would not have to face Canada, Russia, Finland, or Sweden in this elimination round. With a flip of the on-switch, the U.S. could handle anyone seeded 5-12.

In essence, the format gives every team (regardless of pool play record) the opportunity to advance to the quarterfinals. All it takes is a sustained 60 minute effort, expelled at the right time. Put another way, a team with a 1-3 record could be in the field of 8 remaining teams. What a perfect road for a youthful team, desperate for games to gain experience, with the talent to make a late-tournament run.

This U.S. window of opportunity heavily relies on Buffalo Sabres netminder, Ryan Miller. As he goes, so go the Americans. At this present moment, he is the best goalie entered in the tournament--period. I would put his current level of play above Backstrom and Kiprusoff (Finland), Bryzgalov and Nabokov (Russia), Lundqvist (Sweden), and even Luongo and Brodeur (Canada). These are the four medal contenders on every analyst's radar, and their goaltenders are highly decorated to validate the predictions. Several of these goalies have a Vezina Trophy (best NHL goaltender) and are poised for Hall of Fame inductions. However, Miller is the one riding the most consistent hot streak.

Entering the Olympics, Miller has the lowest GAA (Goals Against Average--2.16) of any NHL goalie in Vancouver. He is also tied for the League lead in save percentage, stopping 93% of the shots he faces. Halfway through the 2009-10 season he has faced 30.7 shots per game, nearly three shots more than the NHL average. In other words, the Buffalo Sabres skaters in front of him are not much to write home about. Ryan Miller has to make up for defensive shortcomings more than most Olympians are accustomed to. He does this quite well; Buffalo has a +14 goal differential, owns 33 wins, and currently holds a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Miller keeps his team in the game long enough for the offense to take advantage of the opposition's lapses. Sound like anybody familiar? 1980 Lake Placid goalie, Jim Craig, and Ryan Miller are cut from the same cloth. Both are proof that a solid last line of defense is the best offense. In addition, both use the strength of the opposition against them. This is the archetype for an underdog.

The U.S. was out-shot 39-16 in the famous 1980 "Miracle" match-up with the Soviets. I am not sure what is more amazing, Jim Craig making 36 saves on the finest attackers in the world, or the United States shooting an absurd 25% on a Hall of Fame goalie. Believe it or not, both are actually a testament to Craig. It is why Miller's success can carry the modern team to the podium. The 1980 U.S. forwards had very little scoring opportunities, so they chose their moments carefully. They capitalized at a high rate because the forward push usually followed an extraordinary Jim Craig save. It frustrated the Soviets to be unrewarded for so much effort, which led to flat feet, a deflated defense, and zero back-checking. That is the blueprint for an upset; one that is stored in the vaults of USA Hockey. Ryan Miller is the best foreman in the business to carry out the plan.

What all hockey fans can expect to see:

The stars have definitely aligned in 2010 for hockey fans. The four-year cycle of Winter Olympics has produced the deepest, most talent-laden collection of hockey players in one venue...ever. The more you dissect, the more you come to realize that the United States
does have a great team. It is the freakish rosters of other countries, more like NHL All-Decade Teams, that paint the U.S. to be sub-par.

This is also the first Olympic hockey tournament that will be played on an NHL-size rink, not the wider international dimensions. The Olympics, played on the larger rink, are known as the epitome of end-to-end fluid hockey. It is as much of a gentlemen's game as an NHL All-Star Game. Frankly, there is enough open ice for everyone to coexist peacefully. The shrinking of the Olympic neutral zone means fans will see more hits, which means more penalties and the elevated need for solid special teams. To the countries competing, this translates into an Olympic roster with uncharacteristic size and a physicality. Check mark, Team USA. Brooks Orpik (Pittsburgh Penguins), Dustin Brown (L.A. Kings), Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers), Ryan Malone (Tampa Bay Lightning), and David Backes (St. Louis Blues) are all in the top fifteen in hits this NHL season. They should set a tone that it will take more than speed to beat the Americans.

USA Hockey enthusiast: prepare yourself for an unexpected American result, but only commit one leg to the bandwagon. They possess all the tools necessary to turn on the world-class talent when the moment is right. Just do not blame me if they blow a fuse upon flipping the untested switch. Maybe the ultimate curse is predicting a solid American outcome, and robbing the Canadians of podium glory. I should say they are as big of a long-shot as their 1980 counterparts. We all know how that level of expectation worked out.

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