| PARTICIPATING RED WINGS |
|BRIAN RAFALSKI |
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|VALTTERI FILPPULA |
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-- Team USA parlayed the most complete 13 minutes of hockey it has played in this Olympic tournament into a 60-minute date with destiny on Sunday.
The rabid Americans torched a usually reliable Finland team for a half-dozen goals by the time 12:46 had elapsed in the first period of Friday's semifinal before cruising to an emphatic 6-1 victory against the shocked Finns.
Now a team few fancied to be among the last two standing in this battle of hockey heavyweights not only reaches the championship game, but does so while firing on all cylinders.
The Americans, who have yet to trail in this tournament after five games, will play Canada in Sunday's gold-medal game. The host country hung on for a dramatic 3-2 win over Slovakia on Friday night.
"It's pretty unbelievable," American forward Zach Parise said. "It's tough to describe right now. Even sitting on the bench and watching the clock count down to your chance to win a gold, it's pretty surreal."
Not as surreal as the first 13 minutes of Friday's game, though.
Ryan Malone opened the scoring at the 2:04 mark when Finnish goalie Miikka Kiprusoff made a stunning gaffe in playing the puck. The Finnish goalie wandered out between the circles to chase down a dump-in before a hard-charging Phil Kessel reached it. But under pressure, Kiprusoff made the wrong read and pushed the puck right onto the stick of Malone just inside the blue line.
The Tampa Bay Lightning forward buried the shot and the Finns' hopes of advancing to the gold-medal game for the second-straight Olympic tournament.
"It was a tough start for us," Finland coach Jukka Jalonen said. "Kipper made one mistake and it shouldn't be like this, but we were kind of shocked."
That shock was evident and Team USA took fast advantage. A little more than four minutes after Malone's goal, Parise scored on the power play. Then it was Erik Johnson, also on the power play, scoring a little more than two minutes later. Next, Patrick Kane scored the first of his two goals at 10:08, the Americans' fourth goal on just seven shots.
The Finns tried to staunch their wounds by pulling a clearly rattled Kiprusoff, who stopped just three of seven shots, replacing him with backup Niklas Backstrom. He ended up being treated just as rudely. Kane scored his second goal at the 12:31 mark, less than two minutes after Backstrom entered the game. Fifteen seconds later, Paul Stastny scored to end one of the most dominant offensive stretches in recent Olympic history.
"It was a crazy 12 minutes," said Kane, who played with a swagger that had been missing for much of this tournament. "I've never been a part of something like that. It seemed like we were scoring every shift, which was pretty amazing.
"It was a great 15 minutes for us. It would have been nice to play a full 60. But we still have more in the tank. It was a great start and it's an awesome feeling to be going to the gold-medal game."
The Americans did not score any more goals in the game's final 47 minutes, but they didn't take their foot off the gas either. Instead, they concentrated on the defensive side of the game, playing strong in their own zone, back-checking like demons and limiting neutral zone turnovers.
American goalie Ryan Miller faced just 18 shots without allowing a goal in the 48:29 he played before being replaced by Tim Thomas, who got his first Olympic action and allowed Finland's only goal, by Antti Miettinen off a deflection with 5:14 remaining in the game.
"We were willing to play a game where Finland had to settle down and we were willing to settle down a little bit," Miller told NHL.com. "We kept them off the board and that is a great accomplishment. I think they have some great skill players that want to get open and we did not let them. Their one goal goes off (Jack Johnson)'s heel and goes top shelf. A little more heel and it goes wide, a little lower and it is a block. I thought we did a great job."
So did American coach Ron Wilson, who went out of his way to praise the work of his defensemen, who used good stick placement to cut off the passing lanes that the Finns often use to a lethal advantage.
But Finland never recovered from the grievous wounds suffered in the first dozen minutes. It was an unjust end for the veteran core of the Finnish national team that has delivered its country so many proud moments in the past decade, including a silver medal in Torino and a second-place medal at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
"It's obviously very disappointing, very tough," forward Teemu Selanne told NHL.com. "When a game is over after 12 minutes, I don’t know what to say. I'm stunned. This has never happened in my career on the national level. I don’t know what happened."
What happened is the Americans sensed an opponent's weakness and preyed mercilessly on it, showing a killer instinct that has been missing to this point in the competition.
Now, the Americans believe they are playing the best hockey of this two-week tournament and they are ready to embrace the opportunity to win the country's first hockey gold medal -- no matter the opponent -- since the "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid 30 years ago.
"I like our chances against either team," Wilson said.
0 0 1 - 1USA
6 0 0 - 6First Period Scoring:
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) 12:46.First Period Penalties:
J. Niskala FIN (interference) 5:59, T. Lydman FIN (boarding) 7:02, B. Rafalski USA (kneeing) 19:48.Second Period Scoring:
No scoring.Second Period Penalties:
J. Ruutu FIN (roughing, misconduct) 7:52.Third Period Scoring:
1. FIN A. Miettinen (Lepisto) 14:46 PPG.Third Period Penalties:
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.