It's another day at the office for Team USA, this time against a Finnish squad that received Silver at the 2006 Winter Games. The winner earns an opportunity to compete in Sunday's Gold Medal final. Did anyone truly expect the United States to be here right now?
"If you would have said at the beginning of the tournament that we'd be 4-0 and the No. 1 seed, everybody would have said you're on crack or something," Ron Wilson told Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Guess that answers it.
Backed by the strong play of Ryan Miller, Team USA goes into tonight with an unblemished record in the tournament, and most surprisingly, has yet to trail on the scoreboard in a single game. The Americans most recent victory came against the scrappy Swiss, who boasted notorious Shark-killer Jonas Hiller between the pipes. And just like their victory over Canada on Sunday, it was one they fought hard to earn. Hiller stifled the American attack for forty two minutes until Zach Parise deflected a Brian Rafalski shot into the net.
Up until then, it was a game that featured near misses and a razor thin margin for error. Although Miller was his usual self, making 19 stops throughout the course of the game to lock down a shutout, he did require some luck to blank Switzerland. Sandy Jeannin fired a shot that clanked off the inside of the far post only moments after the Americans took the lead. The puck was cleared, and for a moment, all eyes were turned towards the Jumbotron as officials reviewed the play.
Alas, it was not meant to be. And rightfully so-- although Hiller was excellent, the Americans greatly outplayed Switzerland, more so than their initial victory over them in group play. They have only gotten stronger as the tournament has progressed. Odd man opportunities that plagued the unit throughout their first two games have been corrected. The lines have begun to gel.
But with Finland's roster mostly intact from 2006 where they took home a silver medal in Torino, there is no looking past today.
Miika Kiprusoff's skill set may be declining as his age increases; the same can be said for the entire roster of Finland. They will ice a team that stretches well into their 30's, and compared to the 26.5 average years that comprise this young American squad, undertones of experience vs. youth will be a storyline. Two Americans have medaled (Rafalski and Drury in 2002). By comparison, fifteen Finns have, nearly three-fourths of the roster they bring into tonight.
As we have seen throughout the tournament however, it only takes one game, one player, to turn the tides. Kiprusoff currently has a 94.6 SV% in these Olympic Games. He will be able to steal a game, much like Hiller almost did Wednesday. The Finns have good forward depth, much more so than Switzerland, and Miller will be tested. Their defense may be aging, but Kimmo Timonen leads a unit sprinkled with experience and new blood. Teemu Selanne is the current all-time Olympics point leader and will be dangerous on the power play.
It will be a continuation of the basics today for Team USA. Blocked shots, physical contact along the boards, and a willingness to drive to the net are trademarks of this club, assets that have brought them within reach of what was initially thought to be only a dream.
A dream that is now sixty minutes away.