Sunday, February 28, 2010

Some Post-Olympic Thoughts


I'm pretty tired, so this is going to be short. But...man, that was awesome, wasn't it?

Yeah, the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team lost the gold medal game to the Canadians in heartbreaking fashion. It doesn't matter. I know the U.S. players are having difficulty coping with the silver swinging from their necks tonight, but they've got nothing to be ashamed of, not after blowing through the tournament and playing well enough to win every contest, and not when most observers expected them to go home without a medal of any sort.

For two weeks, the men in red, white and blue played out of their minds. They twice beat a Swiss team with Jonas Hiller, one of the world's best goaltenders. They positively destroyed an experienced Finnish team and may have done permanent damage to Miikka Kiprusoff's career. They defeated the Canadians in one of the most exciting and memorable games in tournament history. And they came within one goal of beating that same Canadian team (likely to be remembered as the greatest Olympic hockey team ever) for the gold.

Patrick Kane got off to a slow start, but came up big when needed in the later games, especially against the Fins. Zach Parise showed his all-around prowess from the minute he showed up, and his game-tying goal today with 24 ticks left is a moment will not soon to be forgotten. Brian Rafalski was shockingly the tournament leader in goals at one point, and his leadership on defense trickled down to the rest of the blue line corps. Ranger teammates Ryan Callahan and Chris Drury gave everything they had on their checking unit, sacrificing their legs to so many opposing slap-shots and one-timers.

But then there's Ryan Miller. His tournament MVP honor was so deserving despite losing out on gold. No player meant more to his team's success during these Olympics than Miller. He was so rock solid from the first game against Switzerland until Sidney Crosby slipped in the game-winner today. His performance in the win against Canada alone was enough to justify the level of praise being heaped on him now. He was the key reason why the Americans had a chance to win every game they played. Miller will always be a legend for that.

Ron Wilson did a bang-up job coaching this crew. He knew all their strengths and weaknesses, and in a short period of time got them to play the aggressive, fore-checking style needed for success. Their terrific job against the incredibly stacked Canadian team speaks to that.

One underrated image I took away from the post-game ceremonies was the look and general demeanor of one Brian Burke, the man responsible for assembling this overachieving team.

While the rest of the U.S. hockey executives were looking dapper in suit and tie behind the team as they lined up to receive their medals, there was Burke, hair slightly askew, loosened tie, top button unfastened, no sport coat, and face slightly redder than usual. Burke had clearly spent the entire game in a suite at Hockey Place pacing around, banging his fist against tables, dropping F-bombs left and right.

No matter your opinion on Burke, the man has passion. He wanted to win this so badly, to prove to the world America was back on top as an international hockey superpower. They got close, yet didn't quite reach the summit. But Burke's passion was manifested in this team. They responded to his intensity with a performance for the ages.

Quickly, I'd like to say that while I'm reviled by many members of the Canadian team, they certainly deserved to win gold and I'll be shocked if we ever see another Olympic group like this again. I was also bitterly disappointed by the Russians, who laid down against Canada in embarrassing fashion. Based on his conduct after the loss, Alex Ovechkin has a lot to answer for as he heads back to Washington. It was great to see the Slovaks play well deep in the tournament, and we may have seen the end of Sweden's long run of recent international greatness.

I'm sad these Olympics are over, and we'll never again get to see this particular group of Americans play together. It's going to be damn near impossible to root against anyone that played for the U.S. in this tournament, regardless of where they wind up in the future (yes, that includes Phil Kessel). They'll always be near and dear to my heart for the joy they gave me these past two weeks.

Check back later this week for a roundup of the NHL's trade deadline activity. Until then.

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