Ice hockey

US stays on task

They expect test against Finland

By Ira Podell
Associated Press / February 26, 2010

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The forward lines ran drills in different colored jerseys. The coaches diagrammed plays on a white board. The players jostled and cracked smiles.

Nothing about this practice suggested that the US men’s hockey team was just two wins from a most improbable gold medal.

The Americans meet Finland in a semifinal today, and some thoughts are starting to creep in about what could be in store if this unbeaten team keeps winning.

“That’s only natural,’’ said former Boston College defenseman Brooks Orpik, a Stanley Cup champion with Pittsburgh last season. “If you’re not thinking about that, then I think you’re lying. I think that’s good to kind of look ahead. You have to set your goals high, but at the same time not overlooking the game you have.’’

While few expected the US to make such a deep run in this tournament filled with teams loaded with NHL talent, the same argument could be made for the Finns even though they captured the silver medal at the 2006 Turin Games.

Whoever wins today will advance to the gold-medal game against Canada or Slovakia. It has been 30 years since the US men won gold.

“We have a very difficult game against Finland,’’ goalie Ryan Miller said. “They are very fast, they’re very well organized. I don’t think we got this far by looking ahead. We’ve always focused on that one game we needed. This will be a bigger test for our locker room to see if we can keep our heads in the right spot.’’

The Americans have been on a high since stunning Canada Sunday in the final game of the preliminary round. That victory clinched first place in their group and excused them from having to qualify for the quarterfinals.

It set up a rematch with Switzerland, the first opponent for the US in these games. Like in the opener, the Americans were patient enough to outlast the gritty Swiss, 2-0. Despite a wide edge in shots, the Americans didn’t break the scoreless deadlock until the third period when top-line forward Zach Parise scored.

Parise added an empty-net goal to salt away Miller’s fourth straight win.

“Last game we really stuck to the plan,’’ forward Ryan Malone said. “We didn’t get frustrated. That was a good test for us to make sure that everyone was on the same page.’’

Finland brings a similar style to the Swiss, Orpik said after a video session. Finland prefers to sit back and try to capitalize on mistakes. With physical players on a smaller, NHL-sized rink, the Finns might look to play a closer-checking game similar to the Americans’ approach.

A potent power play that has produced seven goals in four games has helped Finland reach the Olympic medal round.

Miller has become more of a celebrity in the past two weeks since leaving relative anonymity while starring for the Buffalo Sabres. He has been called the best goalie in the NHL this season on numerous occasions, and his popularity is rising.

“They have a great goalie, we have to make sure he doesn’t see all the pucks,’’ Finn forward Teemu Selanne said.

Miller has stopped 85 of 90 shots in his Olympic debut and has carried his club with a 1.25 goals-against average.