-- Against the longest of odds, Team USA has found its way into the gold-medal game of the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament.
In a hotly anticipated semifinal against a veteran Finland team that earned silver four years ago, the young Americans played like the more veteran team in dismantling the Finns 6-1 on Friday at Canada Hockey Place.
Not only did the Americans shock and awe the experienced Finns with a first period for the ages -- six goals in the first 13 minutes -- but they now enter Sunday's gold-medal game firing on all cylinders.
In that gold-medal game, the Americans will face either host Canada or the surprising Slovaks. Those two teams meet in Friday night's late semifinal. The Americans beat Canada 5-3 in pool play and have not faced the Slovaks yet in this tournament.
The United States has not won goal since 1980.
Entering Friday's game, the Americans faced three major questions despite being the tournament's only unbeaten team. By the time the final buzzer sounded against the Finns, all three were answered positively.
There were legitimate concerns about a power play that had managed just four goals in 16 opportunities. But, two of the Americans first three goals Friday came in man-advantage situations.
Both goals, by Zach Parise and defenseman Erik Johnson came on a power play that finally showed the proper mixture of industry and creativity. Each goal was scored when a forward chased down a 50-50 puck, but was finished by a display of skill.
That dovetails nicely into the second point the Americans wanted to see addressed
Somehow, this team had reached the semifinals without much input from their big guns. But the superstars are now fully engaged.
Pat Kane, who had a lone goal against Norway to his credit, was flying from the opening faceoff in this game. He was rewarded with a pair of goals 2:23 apart to give the USA a 5-0 lead.
Parise, meanwhile, has three goals in his past two games, including the game-winner against Switzerland in the quarterfinals.
Even first-line center Paul Stastny got on the board, scoring the Americans' final goal of the first period after Parise used a menacing forecheck to force Sami Salo into one of the most egregious of the countless turnovers the Finns made in the first period.
None of those turnovers, however, was bigger than the one Finnish goalie Miikka Kiprusoff made in the game's opening minutes. Joe Pavelski tried to alleviate some Finnish pressure with a clear up the middle of the ice, which was pushed ahead by Ryan Malone
. Phil Kessel aggressively chased the puck and appeared to be behind a slow-reacting Finnish defense. That's when Kipper decided to race out to clear the puck from the on-rushing Kessel.
Kiprusoff reached the puck first, but his attempt to clear the puck was intercepted by Malone just inside the blue line and calmly fired into the open net.
Finland never recovered from that mistake -- and that was to the Americans' credit. For one of the few times in this tournament, Team USA actually pounded a team into submission when it had that team on the ropes. The lack of a killer instinct had been the third concern for the Americans.
The Americans scored three more times by the 10:08 mark of the first -- the goals by Parise, Kane and Erik Johnson -- to all but decide this game and also send Kiprusoff to the bench to be replaced by Niklas Backstrom.
Kiprusoff allowed four goals on seven shots.
Less than three minutes later, Kane welcomed Backstrom to the blowout with a quick wrister into the back of the net.
Fifteen seconds later, Stastny ended the carnage with his goal, leaving the Americans a 47-minute of game play in which they worked on their defensive form and backchecking schemes as the Finns played out the string.
It was not the way Finland wanted to see its tournament end. This was the last kick at a gold medal for a proud generation of Finnish players -- headlined by the Anaheim duo of Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, as well Ville Peltonen, who was playing in his fifth Olympics.
But they were able to generate few chances offensively against a solid defensive effort from the Americans and the continued brilliance of goalie Ryan Miller. The Buffalo Sabres netminder made 18 saves before he was pulled midway though the third period to get backup Tim Thomas an Olympic appearance.
Miller will take a shutout streak of 111:38 into the gold-medal game. Thomas allowed a power-play goal to Antti Miettinen with 5:14 remaining.
Now Finland will try to at least salvage some kind of medal in Saturday's bronze-medal game, in which the Finns will face the loser of Friday night's semifinal between Slovakia and Canada.
0 0 1 - 1USA
6 0 0 - 6First Period
1. USA R. Malone (unassisted) 2:04
2. USA Z. Parise (Stastny, Rafalski) 6:22 PPG
3. USA E. Johnson (Pavelski, Malone) 8:36 PPG
4. USA P. Kane (unassisted) 10:08
5. USA P. Kane (Rafalski) 12:31
6. USA P. Stastny (Langenbrunner, Parise) 12:46Penalties
- J. Niskala FIN (interference) 5:59, T. Lydman FIN (boarding) 7:02, B. Rafalski USA (kneeing) 19:48.Second PeriodPenalties
- J. Ruutu FIN (roughing, misconduct) 7:52.Third Period
1. FIN A. Miettinen (Lepisto) 14:46 PPGPenalties
- N. Backstrom FIN (interference served by T. Selanne) 0:22, R. Malone USA (high sticking) 2:43, S. Lepisto FIN (high sticking) 8:29, E. Johnson USA (interference) 13:37.SHOTS ON GOALFIN
4 7 14 - 25USA
13 9 1 - 23Goaltenders
(goals-shots against) - USA: Miller (W, 0-18), Thomas (1-7); SUI: Kiprusoff (L, 4-7), Backstrom (2-16).Power plays
(goals-chances) - USA: 2-5; FIN: 1-3.