World and Nation

With Olympic win, U.S. hockey team starts to believe again

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — The American men skated onto the Canada Hockey Place ice on Sunday with a clear sense of purpose. They wore their 1960 replica sweaters, commemorating the United States’ first gold medal in Olympic hockey, won 50 years ago at Squaw Valley. They knew where they stood and what might come.

And when they skated off at the end of a gritty 5-3 victory, they had created a spot in hockey lore for themselves. The last time the Americans beat the Canadians in Olympic competition was in that same year, 1960; since then they had tried six times, and all they had to show for it was a tie, in 1994.

Monday is the 30th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice. But at this tournament there is much more hockey history to be made. The only question is who will be writing it.

By finishing as the No. 1 seed in the 12-team field, the Americans hold the biggest pen. Their next opponent, on Wednesday, will be the winner of the Switzerland-Belarus qualifying match on Tuesday.

The United States beat Switzerland last week, 3-1; it was not easy, and the Swiss also gave the Canadians fits in a shootout loss and beat Norway in overtime.

The Belarusians were crushed by Finland, but they came close to repeating their 2002 upset of Sweden and beat Germany. Nevertheless, neither they nor the Swiss can be considered on the same level as the Americans, whose path to the semifinals is fairly straightforward.

Still, amid the euphoria, Ron Wilson, the U.S. coach, recognized the sobering aspects of Sunday’s victory.

“We still have some work to do,” he said, and referred to Canada’s 45-23 shooting advantage. “We got outshot today. Granted, we had the lead, but the guys are doing some good things out there and we’re going to keep building and getting better. These guys are only going to get more confident.”

Wilson speaks of confidence. Canada, meanwhile, is in crisis.

The loss to the Americans forces the Canadians to play a qualifying game on Tuesday against Germany. That’s not so bad, but assuming they win, what follows is pretty bad — facing Russia on Wednesday.

The Canadians have real problems. One may be the age-old North American belief that to win at hockey you must go around hitting people whenever and wherever you can. This belief persists despite longstanding statistical evidence showing that teams that hit a lot lose as often as they win.

“Finishing your check” is the technical term for this. It is what fueled Ryan Getzlaf, Rick Nash and several other Canadians to run at American players after those players had passed the puck elsewhere. They hit the Americans hard, for sure, but by finishing their checks, they put themselves out of the play as well. That form of physicality, so full of sound and fury, signified nothing.

The Russians do not engage in that kind of random pummeling. Their body checks are thrown with purpose: to dislodge the puck.