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The Maple Leaf Intertwined With The Stars and Stripes

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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Interesting isn’t it, how the Maple Leaf is intertwined with the Stars and Stripes?

That will be one of the underlying storylines in Vancouver as Maple Leaf coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke lead Team USA into the Olympic Men’s Hockey Tournament.

The Maple Leafs, self-appointed as Canada’s team, are providing an organizational lifeline to one of its biggest rivals, the flag-draped skaters from the U.S.

Phil Kessel, the Leafs’ leading goalscorer despite a dozen games lost to injury, will be one of the many youngish stars counted on to lead an American team that bears little in common with past editions.

The team has been assembled by Leafs President and GM Brian Burke.  He has laid the reins in the hand of Leafs coach Ron Wilson, a veteran of international competition.

Familiar stars such as Mike Modano, Tony Amonte, Kevin Hatcher and Chris Chelios are not around this time leading to a fresh-faced lineup whose core should be in place for 2014 and beyond. The Americans finished an embarrassing eighth in 2006.

“We’re the youngest of all the teams by two or three years,” Wilson said, “but I know these players believe they have a shot of winning a gold medal and that’s what they want to accomplish. I think they will be very focused on that.”

The Americans will be led by the likes of 25-year-old  New Jersey Devil Zach Parise, 21-year-old Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks, 22-year-old Anaheim Star Bobby Ryan and Kessel.  Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller, 29, gives the Americans premium netminding.

“I think Canada and Russia are the two best teams in terms of firepower,” Wilson said.
“I think we’re somewhere around third, but don’t discount the Swedes. They have some of the top players in our league. There are six or seven teams capable of winning the gold medal if
everything falls right.”

Wilson knows one single element of the game, with the possible exception of goaltending, will carry the day.

“You’ve got to play well in all areas. We’ve got to do well forechecking, we’ve got to have good special teams. Obviously most important is getting solid goaltending. We would like to start off well and obviously that can build your confidence, but we’ve also see Canada lose a game early in the tournament and have that kind of adversity define your focus. One thing for sure, we won’t leave anything on the table.”

The heat is on Canada to repeat after finishing seventh in Turin, Italy, in 2006. The U.S. gold-medal winning performance at the World Juniors indicates that while the Americans have not reached parity with Canada, they can still win a short tournament.

The Olympics, of course, are a special kind of animal. Thirty years after Team USA stunned the Soviet Union to produce the Miracle on Ice, there are a great many more countries able to win a short tournament.

“I’m very excited,” Kessel said. “I think it’s going to be an unbelievable situation.”

Kessel has scored 21 goals in 48 games and while Burke and Wilson have had plenty of time to assess his game, he still doesn’t know who his linemates are, nor what kind of style the American side will bring to the tournament.

“I think it depends on who you play but I think the pace is going to be really, really fast. You’d better be ready going in,” said Kessel.
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