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Rafalski shines in U.S. win

by John Dellapina
VANCOUVER – Because he is a hockey player, Brian Rafalski neither laughed out loud nor ridiculed the question. He simply flashed a momentary "are you kidding?" look and then politely answered.

"Yeah, obviously," he replied when asked if he had ever played in a game like the one he had just completed Sunday afternoon at Canada Hockey Place. "Stanley Cup Finals. Gold medal game."

Fact is, Rafalski has been there and done that so often that there is nothing on a sheet of ice that can rattle him. It's one of the primary reasons why Brian Burke wanted him on Team USA's defense for these Olympics. And as good an explanation as any of how, at a a mere 5-foot-10, he was able to not merely survive, but pump home two goals and set up a third Sunday afternoon against the collection of locomotives Canada has assembled at forward.

"You do it every game in the NHL," Rafalski said, smiling. "Now, you just have four lines that do it."

In fact, no individual NHL teams can come at an opposing defense with the size and power that Team Canada can. That makes sense – Team Canada is an NHL all-star team.

To compete with that team, Burke absolutely wanted some comparable beef. And the likes of forwards Ryan Malone and Ryan Kesler and defensemen Brooks Orpik and the Erik and Jack Johnson enable Team USA to measure up.

But as the American braintrust made the decision to turn these Olympics over to a younger core of players, it knew it also needed some wise, older heads to provide perspective and calm for days such as yesterday – when Canada came in relentless, punishing waves and Team USA found itself hemmed in its own end for what seemed like full minutes at a time.

Count Rafalski among that group. At age 36, he has won four Stanley Cups, appeared in five Stanley Cup Finals, played in three Olympics and one gold medal game.

So it should have come as no surprise that Rafalski stepped into a right-circle slapper 41 seconds into the game and kept his shot low and hard, so that when Sidney Crosby dropped to block it, it wound up deflecting off the Canadian star's stick and past Martin Brodeur for the instant 1-0 lead that stunned the 95-percent pro-Canadian crowd.

Or that Rafalski stepped up rather than retreating when he saw Brodeur take a baseball swing at an airborne puck on the mid-first-period shift right after Eric Staal had scored to tie it for Canada. Having played his first seven seasons with the Devils, Rafalski had to know Brodeur might try something like that. And he was in just the right place to flag down Brodeur's clearing attempt and snap another low shot toward the net, where Langenbrunner was erecting a screen that enabled the puck to slither through Brodeur.

The goal was Rafalski's fourth in these Olympics – fourth in 12:15 of playing time, to be exact, as he had scored twice in the final three minutes against Norway Thursday. Rafalski's four goals are tied with Canada's Dany Heatley for the tournament lead.

"Raffie is on fire shooting the puck right now, so we're just trying to get him the puck," Langenbruner said. "And Dru (Chris Drury) and I were able to pick up some garbage goals. That's kind of what we gotta do."

Team USA GearRafalski wasn't done.

Midway through the period, he swooped across the ice to simply remove the puck from Joe Thornton and send a home-run pass the other way that sent Bobby Ryan in on a breakaway that Brodeur stopped.

Later in the period, Rafalski absorbed a blind-side wallop from Rick Nash late in the second period but bounced to his feet to throw a shot on goal that commenced a wild scramble. That scramble ended with the goal by Drury (another of Team USA's "experience” guys) that gave the Americans a 3-2 lead going into the third. 

And in the third, after getting sandwiched behind the American net by Canadian forwards Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, Rafalski struck again. He leaned into yet another low, hard shot – this time from the left circle -- on a Team USA power play and it deflected off Langenbrunner's skate and past Brodeur for the key 4-2 goal.

Team Canada coach Mike Babcock has seen this show before. Rafalski has been playing for Babcock with the Detroit Red Wings the last three seasons. Of course, there's a guy named Nicklas Lidstrom winning Norris Trophies in Detroit, just as Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens commanded the spotlight when Rafalski was with the Devils.

"He's just a real solid player that does his job," Babcock said. "He's not the guy you talk about."

Except when you're putting a U.S. Olympic team together and you need a guy who has been everywhere and done everything.

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