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Top story No. 8: Canada bests U.S. for hockey gold

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer
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CBSSports.com is counting down the Top 10 storylines of 2010 in sports, culminating with the No. 1 story, which will be revealed on Dec. 30.

The last time hockey had as much mainstream attention in the United States, you could still buy gas for a buck and quarter.

These days a cup of coffee will set you back more. But one thing that hasn’t changed since the Miracle on Ice is the universal appeal of a David vs. Goliath clash, even those that are more perceived than real.

The Olympic hockey gold medal game earlier this year made that clear by turning into one of the best-rated televised sporting events in recent history. Seen by 34.8 million people at its peak, the winner-take-all contest between the United States and Canada drew nearly 25 percent more viewers than the college kids did when they stunned the world in Lake Placid three decades earlier. In fact, the dramatic 3-2 overtime win by Canada had a larger audience than the Masters, Rose Bowl, NCAA basketball final and the most-watched games of the same season’s NBA Finals and World Series.

What all those people saw was a heart-stopping -- and for the Americans, heartbreaking -- game for the ages, one that Team USA captain Jamie Langenbrunner said "showed all the good there is in hockey."

So what if it lacked the same kind of magical ending for the Americans as it did in 1980? In many ways this gold medal game was equally, if not more stirring because it had a big build-up instead of coming as a surprise, and more important, because it ultimately lived up to the hype. The build-up started several months earlier when the man who was responsible for assembling the U.S. team did his best to convince everyone that it was going into the tournament without much of a chance.

"There will not be one dime bet on us," was the mantra Team USA general manager Brian Burke would repeat to anyone who would listen.

Burke was probably not far off the mark either, considering the fantasy-like rosters that tournament favorites Canada, Russia and Sweden brought with them to Vancouver. The Americans, meanwhile, went there in transition mode, bringing a new generation of players who were collectively the youngest group there and not necessarily the best talent the nation had to offer.

There were some top-shelf players in the lineup, to be sure, with the likes of Zach Parise, Patrick Kane and redoubtable goaltender Ryan Miller leading the way. But the Americans were above all a well-constructed 'team,' one that quickly meshed into a dangerous unit that seemed destined for immortality. They came into the 2010 Olympics as self-described underdogs, but they just never seemed to accept that role by winning five games in a row -- including a stunning preliminary round upset against the host team.

That was the one game that perhaps changed the dynamics of the tournament. It alerted everyone to just how good the Americans really were, especially with Miller being an unshakable force in their goal. And it created a national sense of panic north of the border, while sending a strong message to the Canadians that the gold medal was not going to be an entitlement.

"It woke them up for sure," recalled veteran American defenseman Brian Rafalski, who was a force throughout the tournament for his team. "You could see the games they played after us that there was a whole different purpose, almost like they were a whole different team."

A pretty good team at that, considering Canada had to win four consecutive games over a six-night period to ultimately claim the gold medal. The home team had to go through tough Russian and Slovakian teams to get to its shot at the title, but the intensity level required for that effort paled in comparison to what was needed to survive the rematch with the Americans. And what was needed was surviving some shaky goaltending by Roberto Luongo.

Luongo had been between the pipes for Canada since the initial game against Team USA, replacing Martin Brodeur who did not look particularly sharp in that stunning upset. Luongo didn’t look that much better for the remainder of the tournament, but in the gold medal game it didn’t seem to matter as Canada came out like a team possessed and staked Luongo to a 2-0 lead before the game was half over.

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It just wasn’t enough against an opponent that no one except the players themselves thought had any business being there. Ryan Kesler got Team USA back into it with a goal midway through the second period, and then Parise tied it in the dying seconds of the third period, after the Americans had pulled their goalie in desperation and Luongo mishandled a shot.

"When that happened, I really believed we were going to win it," Team USA assistant GM David Poile said.

And they could have. The Americans had some chances in the overtime and Miller seemed determined to will them to victory by taking his game to an even higher level with several brilliant saves against some of the game’s sharpest shooters.

But Miller could not turn aside the final shot he faced, and that made for a movie-like ending in a place that is nicknamed Hollywood North because of its popularity as a filming site. And naturally, the lead role was played by someone who was already an icon in his native country.

Sidney Crosby had been generally inconspicuous through much of this remarkable game, but when a heroic effort was called for, the sport’s brightest star managed to retrieve the puck he carried into the American zone and to get free long enough to one-time a Jarome Iginla pass beyond a surprised Miller. One quick shot to win a game that will be remembered for a lifetime.

"I think we will all know that years from now, this will be an important game to have been a part of," said Canada's since-retired captain, Scott Niedermayer. "It was an incredible game for the Olympics and for the sport because hockey hasn’t often reached the level that was reached out there tonight."

It may not ever again.

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