VANCOUVER – It was a psychological ploy of course. But it also had a lot of truth to it.
Team USA Brian Burke spent the months leading up to these Olympics and every day since the cauldron was lit telling everybody that his club was a decided underdog that nobody expected to contend for anything more than perhaps a bronze medal. Given the daunting quality of some of the other teams and the fact that American hockey was turning a page to a younger generation, Burke was absolutely right.
Except, that is, for the presence of Ryan Miller. In a sport in which the one man between the pipes can nullify any and all disadvantages for one game or even a series of them, Team USA had the best of those men.
No, Miller did not win gold for the Americans. He did everything but.
"Ryan Miller was the best goalie of the tournament," U.S. defenseman Erik Johnson said. "He was our best player every game."
Suffice to say, nobody on either team had any argument after the thrill that was Canada 3, United States 2, in overtime, Sunday afternoon at Canada Hockey Place. Neither could the media members who voted him the tournament's Most Valuable Player nor the Tournament Directorate, who chose him as the outstanding goaltender.
Having stopped 42 shots one week before to lift the Americans to victory over a Canadian team that came at them in waves, Miller was doing it again Sunday.
He stopped 23 of 25 through two periods, keeping Team USA in a game in which it was slow to find the high-energy style it had displayed throughout the tournament. Then he stopped seven more in the third – including a fully-extended toe save on a Dany Heatley slam dunk midway through the period that made it possible for Zach Parise's goal with 24.4 seconds left to send it to overtime.
Canada kept coming though, firing seven more shots at Miller during the 7:40 of overtime. The seventh, by Sidney Crosby, found the back of the net, leaving Miller without the only accolade he wanted from these two weeks: a gold medal.
"I feel good about my game," Miller told NHL.com afterward. "But it kind of stinks coming up short. I guess I'll get some perspective in a few weeks."
Perhaps, so will the folks who didn't quite know about Miller coming into this tournament. The ones who weren't aware that, had he not been injured early during the 2005-06 season, he undoubtedly would have been on the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team. Or that, through the first five months of the NHL season, which resumes Monday night, Miller has been perhaps the best goaltender in the League.
In 355 minutes against a galaxy of NHL stars in these Olympics, he allowed just eight goals on 147 shots. His .946 save percentage led the tournament. His 1.35 goals against average not only led the tournament, it shattered the American Olympic record, set by a guy named Jim Craig, who posted a 2.14 GAA in 1980.
Miller shut out Switzerland in the quarterfinal and then was shutting out Finland in the semis when U.S. coach Ron Wilson, in a nice gesture, replaced him 8:29 into the third period to give veteran Tim Thomas a chance to play some Olympic hockey. Throw in the 3:09 that followed a Sidney Crosby goal last Sunday and the 12:50 until Jonathan Toews beat him on a no-chance goal in the first period of the gold medal game and Miller went 124:28 without being scored on.
Quite simply, his play enabled the predominantly young Team USA to contend for gold four years ahead of the schedule most had mapped out for them.
"It's a little too close right now," Miller said when asked about that. "This is not the way we wanted it, but I think we earned a lot of respect. Our guys came here as an afterthought to a lot of people and I think we started a new trend with USA Hockey.
"We know we were trying to help USA Hockey turn a page. And I guess this is a good start. But it kind of stings at the moment."