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They came early, they came often, and they were decisive. 13 minutes into their semifinal game with Finland, it became obvious that the United States men's hockey team had earned the right to play for a gold medal.
In those 13 minutes, the Americans left the Finns shell shocked, scoring six goals before they knew what had even him them. They beat Finland in every part of the game. They hit harder, skated faster, were opportunistic in their plethora of opportunities and they completely controlled a game that many expected to be close.
Miikka Kiprusoff didn't help his team out either. He bungled the first American goal, coming way out of his net to play a loose puck and then putting it right on the tape of Ryan Malone, who easily fired it into the open net. It was all down hill from there for Kipper, who would be pulled after the fourth USA goal just 10:08 into the first period.
US coach Ron Wilson decided to give backup goaltender Tim Thomas some playing time toward the end of the third period, replacing Ryan Miller with him for the last 11:31 seconds of a 6-0 game. Antti Miettinen would ruin the shutout with about five minutes left in the game, but by then it hadn't mattered for quite some time. The USA knew they would be playing for gold right from the start and they played like it all the way through.
They'll have the honor of playing the winner of tonight's Canada vs Slovakia semifinal. Puck drops on that one at 9:30 PM ET. Finland will play in the bronze medal game on Saturday night against the loser of the other semifinal. The gold medal game is the last event of these Olympics and will take place on Sunday afternoon at 3:15 PM ET / 12:15 PM PT.
You can't really fault Tim Thomas for allowing the first goal by a USA opponent in nearly 120 minutes, but he'll probably get the blame anyways. Just six minutes after relieving starting goaltender Ryan Miller, who had pitched almost two straight games worth of shutout hockey, Thomas allowed an Antti Miettinen shot to find it's way past him to get Finland onto the board late in the third period.
Unfortunately for Thomas, United States defensemen Jack Johnson tried to block Miettinen's shot and inadvertantly deflected it past Thomas. Tough play for a goaltender to make on that hard of a shot, yet immediately chants began to ring out across the arena of "Thooommmmmmaaaaaasssssssss", as the Canadian fans in attendance were happy to find anything to cheer for against the USA.
Despite being down six goals in the third period, you have to give Finland credit for never giving up. The Finns came out firing in the third period and forced the USA to go on a power play, outshooting the United States 8-0 before allowing a shot on goal themselves.
More importantly, United States goaltender Ryan Miller continued his high level of play in the Olympics, maintaining a shutout through 48 minutes before he was pulled to get a much-deserved rest. Tim Thomas will finish the game in net, and try and preserve a second straight shutout for Team USA.
You can't tell me you saw this one coming.
It was thought that this was going to be a tough game for the United States, as the up-tempo offense of Finland and exceptional goaltending would give them just as much trouble as Canada or Russia would. Just over ten minutes into this game, the outcome was mostly decided and 12:46 into the first period the game was essentially over.
Six goals by the United States in the first period, including two by Patrick Kane and four overall by the USA's top line, put this game completely out of reach and has pretty much assured their appearance in the gold medal game on Sunday.
While the USA's aggressive forecheck and offensive firepower were certainly a factor, Miikka Kiprusoff's horrendous start for Finland seems to be worse than what we saw Wednesday night from Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. Kiprusoff allowed four goals on seven shots, including an egregious turnover when he passed the puck straight up the ice and onto Ryan Malone's stick.
Nicklas Backstrom faired no better, allowing two more goals off six USA shots in the first period.
Amazingly, still no score in the second period.
Today's game will be broadcast live on NBC in all four time zones. The puck drops at 3 PM ET / 12 PM PT. NBCOlympics.com has a stream if you're stuck at work.
Everybody wants it to happen, a gold medal game between Canada and the United States. It's this... close... to happening, too, but if the Americans over look a very, very strong Finland team, they'll be playing for bronze tomorrow night instead of gold on Sunday.
The US team has won all four games they've played in these Olympics, but none of that matters as of now. If they lose today, their shot at gold is gone. The Finns, meanwhile, have been through this before. They played for gold in 2006 in Torino before losing to Sweden and taking home silver. You can be sure they'll be hungrier this time around, knowing how close they were last time. Many of the '06 silver medalists are still playing on the team in these Olympics.
The one clear advantage that the Americans have against Finland is that they've played like a team this entire tournament. They attack as a team, they defend as a team, and unlike the rest of the all-star rosters put together for this tournament, the USA actually looks like a cohesive group when they're clicking at all cylinders.
Finland plays a very up-tempo offensive style, complete with a lot of puck movement in the offensive zone. To counter that, the Americans will need to practice good positioning, but most of all, they'll have to play physical. That's something that fits right into the heads of the talent they have on their blueline, with guys like Tim Gleason and Jack Johnson perfectly happy to grind a win out along the boards.
Miikka Kiprusoff is a major factor in the Finnish goal, but Ryan Miller certainly has the ability to match him at the other end. Finland's defense corps, led by Kimmo Timonen and Joni Pitkanen, could be the best in the tournament. To win, the USA is going to have to be clicking offensively as well on all four lines. They'll need scoring from the big guns, like Zach Parise and Patrick Kane, as well as the secondary guys like Ryan Kesler and Bobby Ryan.
This team that clearly dictates the pace of this one, whether it's the Finns with their high-flying offense or the Americans with theirhard-nosed aggressiveness.