Ten minutes into Sunday night's game between Canada and USA, you knew this was building to be a historically entertaining game. The United States jumped out to an early 1-0 lead off a Brian Rafalski goal, and then immediately answered when Canada tied it. It was a fast-paced, nail-biter of first period and it was but a taste of how incredible the rest of the game would be.
Canada would eventually tie the game again at 2-2, yet the United States dug in and instead of allowing the momentum to completely slip away continued their aggressive approach and entered the third period with an improbable 3-2 lead. With three straight power plays, the USA opened up a 4-2 lead off a Jamie Langenbrunner goal that was inches from being a Rafalski hat trick.
Canada would put the pressure on late in the third, even pulling within 4-3 when Sidney Crosby scored with 3:09 remaining, yet could never get that elusive tying goal. Ryan Kesler's incredible effort and hustle would seal the game for the Americans when he knocked in an empty net goal with 45 seconds remaining, finishing one of the most improbable Olympic victories of all time.
The win was a testament to the vastly different styles and approaches by both teams. Steve Yzerman had a stable of talented veterans and young players to choose from, and Team Canada is built as a hopeful balance of both. Heading into the Olympics, many believed Canada to be the gold medal favorites considering their high level of talent and the fact they were playing on home ice.
Compare that to the American team, who started these Games with a tremendous question mark hanging over the heads. Brian Burke had decided to wipe the slate clean with Team USA, deciding against using the veterans we had all been used to seeing in favor of a talented, speedy and incredibly young and inexperienced team. Many questioned the various personnel decisions made by Burke, and it was widely considered that any success in Vancouver would be a near miracle.
Miraculously, after Sunday's momentous team victory over the Canadians it seems as though the USA is on the fast track to medal contention. Indeed, they need just two more wins to play for a gold medal.
Just as we thought before the Games started, the biggest difference-maker for the Americans was Ryan Miller. The Buffalo Sabres goaltender put on a masterful performance, stopping 42 of 45 shots, at least half of which were highlight-worthy and a few that was just astonishingly fantastic. For the USA to have any chance at continuing this magical run, then Miller will have to continue to be the best player with a USA jersey over his pads. His saves were not only incredible to watch, but would come at the most important times in the game as well. After each USA goal, the Canadians would fight hard to get right back on the board and Miller would be forced to make several acrobatic saves to preserve the US lead.
Yet this was more than just a win fueled by an incredible goaltending performance. This was a team victory, where every single member of Team USA played their hearts out for 60 minutes, where they never stopped skating as hard as they possibly could from start to finish. Here were a number of NHL stars selling out to block shots at any cost, hustling hard on the backcheck to break up scoring chances. This hard work was never more evident than when Ryan Kesler outskated Corey Perry to a loose puck, diving to sweep a shot into the open net to ice the victory.
You could see it in the faces and in the smiles of every American player; this was a win they wanted more than the opponent's on the other side. It was a classic case of the hunger of the underdog overcoming the talent and polish of the seasoned veterans, as Canada seemed caught off-guard from the very start at the aggressiveness with which the Americans played.
It's this aggressive approach that many felt would be the American's downfall; their penchant for getting caught deep and allowing too many odd-man rushes would bite them against more talented teams. Yet Ron Wilson seems intent on not allowing his team to just sit back and play it safe, perhaps knowing that the way the USA is constructed and the mentality of this team, being the aggressor is the only chance they have.
Many are saying this is biggest Olympic hockey upset since the 1980 Miracle On Ice, yet I'm hesitant to go that far with what is essentially a preliminary round game that did nothing but determine seeding for the later rounds. Yet this win was just as important for the 2010 USA team and the victory over Russia was in 1980; this is a win that gives the Americans the confidence and the knowledge that they have what it takes to win it all. When you're riding a wave of momentum and confidence, that knowledge is sometimes all you need.
Team USA is built on character and a team approach, bolstered by the all-world play by Ryan Miller. This is not a team that could win the majority of games it would play against Canada, but it doesn't have to. All they need is just one win, one big victory and the rest of the tournament suddenly looks like a much less menacing animal.
On Sunday night, the Americans once again accomplished what many never thought they could.
They got that one victory.