VANCOUVER -- Youth dominates this American national team, but its identity for the 2010 Olympics is greatly shaped by three former Olympians brought back for another shot at gold.
Sunday night, it was those three wily veterans -- defenseman Brian Rafalski, winger Jamie Langenbrunner and center Chris Drury -- and goaltender Ryan Miller, who many believe should have played at the 2006 Olympics -- that navigated the Americans through their most difficult test to date, a winner-take-all Group A finale against the host Canadians.
When the final buzzer sounded on a raucous 60 minutes of the marquee game of Showdown Sunday -- the Russians beat the Czechs in the afternoon and the Swedes played the Finns in the nightcap -- the young and brash Americans had silenced not only the capacity crowd at Canada Hockey Place, but an entire nation with a gritty 5-3 win that featured two goals by Rafalski, single strikes from both Langenbrunner and Drury and 42 saves from Miller.
"Those guys know what to do to win," said American coach Ron Wilson.
David Backes, part of America's youth brigade couldn't suppress a smile when asked about the veterans stepping to the fore Sunday.
"Veteran leadership; there's not much of it, but those are the guys that came here tonight and got it done," said Backes, who is making a name for himself on the international game's biggest stage. "Ryan Miller, Brian Rafalski, Jamie Langenbrunner. Those are guys that are blue-collar and get it done."
They certainly did Sunday, against what many considered the longest of odds.
Canada entered this tournament as the odd-on favorite and, on paper, was better than the Americans at almost every position. Now, the Canadians (1-1-0-1, 5 points) are relegated to Tuesday's qualification round, forced to play Germany in an unwanted winner-take-all game.
The Americans (3-0-0-0, 9 points) not only win Group A, but will have one of the top-two seeds in Wednesday's quarterfinal round.
It wasn't supposed to shake out this way. But when Canada superstar Sidney Crosby accidentally tipped a Rafalski slap shot past goalie Martin Brodeur in the game's first minute, the preconceived notions of this game went right out the window.
"I think that was huge for us," Rafalski told NHL.com. "Even though we didn’t have the best first period, they came out flying and we came out with the lead. I think we got stronger as the game went on."
The Americans led 2-1 after 20 minutes because Rafalski wouldn't let his team question itself.
Eric Staal scored at 8:53 to tie the game at 1-1. Rafalski answered just 22 seconds later when Brodeur batted an American clearing attempt right onto the red-hot defenseman's stick. He then used Langenbrunner for a screen to get a slapper past a surprised Brodeur. Rafalski, who scored twice in the last three minutes of Thursday's win against Norway, had four goals in a 12-minute span when he put the Americans ahead at 9:15 of the period.
"He's doing something special right now," Langenbrunner said. "He's looked at as our leader back there and he's doing a heck of a job doing that, talking in the locker room and talking on the ice and really controlling the play. He seems to rise up in these situations and you saw that again tonight."
Rafalski wasn't the only old man rising up.
Canada landed its second body blow in an attempt to knock out an American team that appeared to be running on adrenaline when Dany Heatley slammed home a rebound 3:32 into the second to tie the game at 2-all.
But the American vets once again were there to pull Team USA woozily off the mat.
This time it was Drury doing the honors by scoring a put-back goal of his own just a little more than three minutes after Heatley's goal.
"There are not too many guys more clutch than he is," Langenbrunner said. "I'm happy to have him on this team. He's another one of those guys that can rise up and he feels good in those situations and delivers, delivers regularly."
Finally, it was Langenbrunner's turn to take a twirl in the spotlight. After a ton of intense pressure by the Canadians -- "We weathered some storms out there," Langenbrunner said -- the American captain just got his stick on a Rafalski slapper to steer the puck through the small 5-hole left by Brodeur, his New Jersey Devils teammate.
Now it was 4-2 and the Americans could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Canada still had a few haymakers left to test the American will. First, Crosby scored to make it 4-3 with 3:09 left in the contest. Then, smelling blood, the Canadians came full bore, cycling the puck for well over a minute and putting the Americans under a state of siege.
However, Drury (blocking a dangerous Shea Weber slapper) and Miller were there for Team USA.
"It was a long shift," Drury said. "It seemed like they had eight or nine guys out there to our five. We hung tight and, obviously, 'Millsie' made some huge saves. I'm glad we were able to get it out of the zone and be able to change."
On the change, Team USA scored its final goal with Ryan Kesler out-racing Corey Perry to sweep the puck into a net that had been vacated by Brodeur for the extra attacker just seconds earlier.
Perhaps, the most lasting effect the Olympic vets on Team USA had was felt after the game.
There was little denying that this team had just authored a signature win, but nobody on the American team was going down that road; not with another week left before a champion is crowned in this tournament.
"It's three points and it's a highly touted game that a lot of people put emphasis on," Backes said. "But we said before the game this isn't going to be the most important game we play."
No, the Americans' next game will be their most important. But now, after proving its mettle Sunday night against the Canadians, this young team is far more prepared to navigate the upcoming challenges.
SCORING CAN 1 1 1 - 3 USA 2 1 2 - 5
1. USA, Rafalski (Suter, Langenbrunner) :41 2. CAN, Staal (Seabrook, Toews) 8:53 3. USA, Rafalski (Unassisted) 9:15
Penalties - Getzlaf CAN (interference) 3:41, Pavelski USA (high-sticking) 6:07.