Ryan Miller was still trying to catch his breath several minutes after stealing what was easily Team USA’s biggest win since the 1996 World Cup. Yet he managed a quick chuckle before answering the question.
“Well it is Canada –U.S.,” Miller told a television interviewer who wondered if there was added significance to Team USA beating Canada 5-3. “We’re happy to get the win.
They should be. Winning this very entertaining final preliminary round game upped the Americans record to 3-0 and earned them a bye into the quarterfinals. That’s the bonus.
But the real feel good thing comes from this being a statement win. One that says American players don’t have to take a back seat to anyone in the world. It’s been a message coming through this season with international wins for speedy Team USA’s at the Under-18 and World Junior Championship levels, and it was reinforced by the Americans beating Canada and Miller proving he gives them as good a chance as anyone to win the gold in this Olympic tournament.
Wouldn’t be another miracle on ice either, not if Miller plays the way he did against the heavily-favored Canadians. He was zoned in from the outset, square to shots and rarely allowing rebounds against some of the best offensive players in the game. It’s generally the way he’s played all season for the Buffalo Sabres, and why he is mentioned in several debates about the NHL’s most valuable player this season. And it’s the reason conventional wisdom had Miller as the key to Team USA’s chances in Vancouver.
That won’t change after Sunday’s game. Pure and simple, Miller won this showdown with Canada and with Martin Brodeur, who had some fine moments of own, just not enough to offset the ones he’d rather forget. Miller had to because while the Americans may have played their best and smartest overall game of the tournament so far, they were outshot 45-22. And if you think that statistics can sometimes be misleading, understand that this one accurately reflects the amount of time the play was in Team USA’s end.
The home team kept coming in waves all night and fired repeated high percentage shots and to a large extent, especially after Canada tied it early in the second period, the Americans looked like they were just trying to survive the onslaught. And Miller made it happen with big save after big save.
“We did a good job keeping them on the perimeter and for the most part I could see puck,” Miller said. “We made them stretch things out.”
The Americans speed helped, not only in their own end where Team USA had its most efficient effort in the tournament, but up front too where the forwards managed to create enough scoring opportunities with their pressure. Team USA ratcheted up what was already some serious pressure on Canada and forcing normally steady players like Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, even Brodeur himself, into uncharacteristic giveaways that led to American goals.
The tone was set when Brian Rafalski took advantage of a Canadian misplay and scored less than a minute in. Team USA never trailed in the game, clinching things when Ryan Kesler outraced Corey Perry and directed a loose puck into an empty net in the dying seconds.
So now Team USA gets an extra day off while the Team Canada will face Germany in a qualification game with even more pressure than they faced coming into the tournament. One loss and they’re done, which would suit Miller just fine.
“We’re really happy about our progress so far, but we have to try to get not too high now, to respect our opponents every night and to build for our opponent,” Miller said. “Who knows, we may have to face these guys again, and they’re going to be plenty mad.”
And if they have to face Miller again, plenty scared.