VANCOUVER – With a 5-2 victory over arch-rival Canada in enemy territory, the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team now enters the quarterfinal round as one of the top seeds and a legitimate medal threat -- as long as it can keep the momentum going.
"USA Hockey has come a long way,"said Patrick Kane. "Coming in, we were probably considered underdogs, but we're a good team over there and we've got some decent players who fit right into their roles."
The running joke here in Vancouver was that no matter how poorly the Canadian athletes fare, no matter how many glitches there were with the cauldron, the buses or the venues, these Olympics would be a success as long as Canada's men's hockey team won gold on home soil.
But at this point, the Vancouver games are in peril - at least in the eyes of Canadians.
It isn't just that Canada lost to their American counterparts, failing to protect their home rink in front of their home fans, but by losing, Team Canada is now forced to play in a qualification game on Tuesday afternoon. Sure, they'll probably win that one with ease, but the daunting task of winning four games in six days against three of the top six clubs in this tournament is one they would rather not face.
They have no choice now.
"It is probably not where we wanted to come in, but that is where we are now,"Sidney Crosby said. "When you get to this point in the tournament, it is not going to be easy and the fact we have to play an extra game isn't a terrible thing and we will be ready for it."
They brought out the big guns out at Canada Hockey Place - Wayne Gretzky, Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan and 1,000 Olympic athletes vying for a coveted seat in the building. Those lucky enough to score a prized spot were treated to three periods of back and forth hockey that define what the sport and this tournament are about -- aggressive, fast and physical hockey.
And as the Canadians mounted one final charge, starting with a Crosby goal with 3:09 remaining, you could feel an entire nation and their emotional and pyschological well being resting on the sticks of the players.
But it all ended when local hero, Vancouver Canuck and U.S. team member Ryan Kesler, put home an empty net goal with 45 seconds remaining. It was a goal that may land him on a cereal box in the U.S. but won't get him a cab in the Olympic city anytime soon.
The fireworks started early in this thriller when Brian Rafalski scored the game's first goal just 41 seconds in, as his shot deflected off of Crosby's stick and behind Brodeur, silencing a crowd at near-bedlam noise levels. He then made it 2-1 when a usually reliable Martin Brodeur took a golf-like swing at an airborne puck that came right out onto the defenseman's stick, with Jamie Langenbrunner's screen paving the way for an eventual goal.
While the U.S. won the game, the Canadians dominated the scoring chances, outshooting the Americans 45-23, but Team USA was able to take advantage of the Canadians putting themselves in the box three times over a 10-minute stretch to start the third period. After successfully killing off an Eric Staal holding call and a Crosby high stick, Corey Perry was sent to the sin bin for slashing with 13:55 left in a 3-2 game.
It was at that point that everyone in the building understood the significance, the Canadians would both kill it off and tie the score, or the Americans would bury the hatchet. And with 12:51 to go, Uncle Sam hit the jackpot as Langebrunner's stick deflected a Ryan Suter shot from the circle, sending the delirious crowd silent, except for the chants of U-S-A from Americans fans who made the trip across the border.
In an Olympics where logistics are a problem, the rallying point for so many in Canada has become the No. 1 cause of concern.
"You know to win this tournament, you're going to have to beat a lot of good teams,"Jarome Iginla said. "We knew everyone thought it was going to be the Russians and us, but we knew there were more than two strong team here."
Now the Canadians have to beat four of them in a matter of six days, or a country painted in red and white will fade to a very somber black.