SOCHI, Russia – This isn't what the Americans came for, a chance to beat Finland and walk home with bronze. But it says something about American hockey that they were viewed throughout the hockey world as a genuine gold-medal threat, that they played throughout this tournament like a genuine gold-medal threat.
It's been 34 years since the Miracle at Lake Placid, but it won't take another 34 years before Americans win Olympic hockey gold.
The reason is simple, and it was explained concisely by former goaltending legend Ken Dryden in an article on the Grantland website: We're growing our own hockey players now. In 1969, only 8 of 322 NHL players were American. In 1980, the year of the Miracle, just 68 of 654 NHL players were American. This year, there are 218 American players in the NHL, and only 52 percent of the league is Canadian.
PLAIN AND SIMPLE: Canada beat USA at its own game
"Thirty four years ago, it was a miracle,'' U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said Friday night after the Americans' 1-0 Olympic semifinal loss to Team Canada. "But the circumstances are much different now. (Canadian coach) Mike (Babcock) talked about building programs and we've done that now in the United States, so it's not a miracle to think about winning a gold medal here or in the future. Unfortunately, we missed that opportunity tonight. But yeah, I guess the reference is old and it's no longer applicable.''
Hockey is no longer the sole province of Canada and certain European nations. The Americans belonged here, belonged in this game, having sent its deepest-ever team to Sochi.
They lost 1-zip.
No shame in that.
Honestly? The better team won, scoring on Jamie Benn's perfect deflection of a Jay Bouwmeester shot from the point.
"They played good hockey and when we got the puck into their end, they moved it out right away,'' said Patrick Kane, who played well in this game but was largely invisible in the tournament. He failed to score a goal in these Games. "We tried to come up with speed but they did a good job of clogging it up and played good defense when we got into their zone. We had a couple of chances on the power play, but obviously we had to shoot a bit better.''
Bylsma all but guaranteed the Americans would come home with the bronze medal, at least.
"We're not coming home with nothing,'' he said.
After most losses, there's ample finger pointing and blame assignment. It's what we do in sports, in America and everywhere else.
Let me point the finger.
Babcock and his staff have the Canadians, a group of great individual talents, playing like a team. They could be Jacques Lemaire's old Devils team, clogging the neutral zone, eliminating the American forecheck with their own neat, clinical breakouts, establishing their forecheck deep in the American end.
It's not the kind of hockey you think about when you're considering the bigger, international ice surface. It's not the free-skating, free-wheeling offensive game. But the Canadians have brought the NHL defensive mindset to these Olympics, and it's put them in position to win the gold medal against Sweden Saturday.
"We've been so good defensively the whole time,'' Babcock said. "Sometimes it's hard to get really great players to play defensively, but these guys have bought in to what we're trying to do.''
Said Canadian forward Matt Duchene: "I think we were the first team that could skate with them in this tournament. Even the Russians didn't play them as hard as we did. We've got such a commitment to back-checking and being hard to play against.''
The Canadians gave no quarter. They were like a python squeezing the life out of its prey. The U.S. had fewer than a half dozen good chances. The Americans finally met their match after having shown up so well throughout the tournament.
If nothing else, they'll always have the Russia memory – which is something.
But how good is Canada? Rick Nash plays on its fourth line. Rick Nash, a star in the NHL and one of the best forwards in the game. The Canadians are loaded, and what makes them so dangerous now is, they're also together.
It was suggested here before that this was the real gold-medal game. Canada will finish the job here Saturday against Sweden.
The reason is simple: The Canadians are playing remarkable defense, and their goaltender, Carey Price, is at the very top of his game.
"(Defense) is something from day one that we really believed in,'' Sidney Crosby said. "That's a big part of having success here. You see the games in this tournament, they're all pretty tight, so defense is a common theme. When there's not much separating these teams, you have to keep the puck out of your own net. As a group, we've done a good job with that.''
For the Americans, the only shame now will come if they go home empty handed. As a hockey nation, we haven't accomplished enough to dismiss a medal, even if it's bronze. We don't have the Canadians gold-or-bust mentality.
Maybe someday, but not today.
Bob Kravitz also writes for the Indianapolis Star.
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