Americans move on to gold-medal game

Finnish flop clears U.S. path to hockey classic; Canadians and Slovaks up next

VANCOUVER — The Great American Olympic Machine will leave here with at least a silver medal in men’s hockey, but if the U.S. players wanted a warm-up for Sunday’s gold-medal showdown, they didn’t get it from the Finns.

After a dramatic win over the Czechs in the quarter-finals, Finland had nothing left in the tank for the semis, falling 6-1 to the hard-driving Americans in game they seemed unprepared for. Or to put it less charitably: they played like they came straight from the bar.

“Losing is fine when you play your best and give everything you’ve got,” said veteran winger Teemu Selanne, the all-time Olympic scoring leader, who is playing in his last Games. “But losing like this, it sucks. It’s very disappointing. I have no words.”

The demolition began just two minutes in, when goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff whiffed on a clearing attempt in his own zone, leaving Ryan Malone a chance he’d have had to work hard to blow. The goal clearly rattled the Swiss, leading to a series of giveaways and silly penalties in their own end.

A boarding call four minutes later against defenceman Janne Niskala resulted in a Zach Parise’s third goal of the tournament, while Toni Lydman went to the box just 40 seconds later for the same infraction. This time it was defenceman Erik Johnson grabbing a lose rebound and firing it in over a sprawling Kiprusoff.

At that point, Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen should have yanked the beleaguered Calgary Flames netminder in favour of the up-and-comer Niklas Backstrom.

But Kipper stayed put, surrendering a goal at 10:08 by Patrick Kane, who took advantage of some abysmal defensive coverage in front of the Finnish net. Then, with Backstrom between the pipes, Kane and Paul Statsny scored even-strength goals just 15 seconds apart—the latter at 12:46

All tolled: six goals in 10 minutes, 42 seconds. When the public address man called the final minute of the first period, the Finnish fans in Canada Hockey Place cheered.

At most, then, this was a confidence-builder for the Americans—a young team that has used its talent and energy to maximum advantage and at 5-0 is the only undefeated team in the tournament. The Johnson & Johnson defence pairing (Erik and Jack) controlled the tempo of play brilliantly whenever they were on the ice. Kane, who had a slow start the tournament, seems restored by his move to a line with Ryan Kesler and Dustin Brown.

Brooks Orpik, a hulking blueliner with the Pittsburgh Penguins, basically pushed around the likes of Selanne and Saku Koivu with impunity. It was a drubbing.

The Finns did manage a goal against backup U.S. goalie Tim Thomas late in the third, as winger Antti Miettinen scored on the power play. They even managed to match the Americans’ shot total of 25.

They move on to the bronze medal game against the loser of tonight’s game between Canada and the Slovaks.

But that stat failed to reflect the competitive imbalance through two periods, and many of the Finnish shots came after the departure of Ryan Miller, whose comfort level in these Games is getting downright eerie.

The Americans were still clinging afterward to the underdog label they gave themselves coming into the tournament. When asked who he thinks the favourite will be in the gold-medal game—pending the outcome of Canada v. Slovakia—captain Jamie Langenbrunner replied with a straight face: “I don’t know but I’m sure it won’t be us.”

The more they play, the harder it is to believe that message.