The 2010 Vancouver Winter Games will end today, and it's fitting that the "main event" should be decided amongst the residents of North America on the final day. While the medal standings have already been determined, the United States having clinched a record number of at least 37 as we head into Sunday, the hockey final will capture the attention and expectant jubilation of all of Canada when it get's going at 2:00pm CST.
Anxious moments against the Swiss aside, the Americans have had a relatively stress free road to the final. They defeated the Canadians, stunning a nation in pool play, dispatched Jonas Hiller a second time, and blitzkrieged Finland in the semi-final to earn their way to the gold medal game. They were not, amongst Sweden, Finland, Russia and Canada, expected to medal in Vancouver, and yet that's just what they have done. You may not agree, but I think everything that happens from here on out is gravy. Silver was unexpected from this team, and a it's fine showing for the United States team should it be their final destination. But why not gold?
When first the games started 2 weeks ago, we provided several news updates suggesting that Brenden Morrow was no more than a 4th line player, possibly even the 13th forward on the Canada roster. What a difference a week makes. He's being described as the "heart beat of the team" in certain circles, and a savior for Canada by the others. Has he re-found that emotional spark that makes him such an effective NHL captain?
Jere Lehtinen ended his international career for Finland last night, taking the bronze medal in an unlikely come-from-behind win over Slovakia. Lehtinen had many offensive opportunities but contributed most, as he often does, on the defensive end of the rink... More importantly, he seems healthy.
After the jump, more on Morrow, Lehtinen, and the Gold Medal showdown in Vancouver on this Sunday morning...
Steve Ott simultaneously gives hope to the faithful, without doing much to de-rail the concerns of the skeptics:
"I'm very hopeful that something gets done. I've put a lot of time in here and all I've done is bleed Dallas Stars and that's all I know. I don't want that to change. I love the area, I love the fans and my daughter is from here. It's an extremely tough situation. I leave it in my agent's hands because that's what I pay him to do. The negotiations have nothing to do with my love for Dallas; it has to do with my agent doing what's best for me. Both sides are definitely talking right now and I am very hopeful something gets done.
"I know for sure that Dallas is not going to let me go for nothing. I realize that if I am not signed I am getting traded. [The trade deadline] puts pressure on both sides to get something done. I want to stay here and Joe [Nieuwendyk] has been great with me and has come forward and said he wants to keep me here. It's in my agent and the team's hands to get something done and I think there is a lot of hope on both sides that something will get done."
"They've both been pretty ugly, but that's how mine seem to go in, so I'll take them anyway I can get them," Morrow said. "It's more of a sprint than a marathon [at the Olympics]. Guys you battle against throughout the season -probably some guys you don't really care much for -but you come here and put that all aside and you have one common goal. We're a tight group now. We're willing to pay a price for each other and do everything we can for that gold."
Morrow said he has been thinking about that since Team Canada held its orientation camp in August.
Yet, there was no guarantee Morrow would actually be named in December to the Olympic roster.
He is a size-medium grinder on a team full of XL offensive gazelles.
And if there were a leaderboard for second-guessed selections, Morrow would have been the clubhouse leader coming to Vancouver.
After a mid-career outburst that saw Morrow score nearly a point per game for more than a year, his 2008-09 season ended with a torn ACL ligament 15 months ago. The injury must have extended internally to his hands, because when Morrow came back this season his scoring touch had hardened.
Three members of the Finnish team, Jere Lehtinen, Ville Peltonen, Saku Koivu all received their fourth Olympic medals doubling the membership of an exclusive hockey club that includes the Czech Republic's (formerly Czechoslovakia) Jiri Holik, Soviet Union's Vladislav Tretyak and Russia's Igor Kravchuk.
It marked the fourth time in five Olympics Finland have landed on the podium while Slovakia were denied their first ever medal in men's ice hockey.
"If someone would tell us before the tournament that we're going to win the bronze medal, I would say we would take it right away," said Finland's Teemu Selanne, who leaves the Games as the Olympics all-time leading scorer.
"Obviously gold was our dream but we had no tools to be in the final. I think the two best teams are in the final and hopefully the better team wins tomorrow."
What'll it be, one more gold for the road? Or silver?
It's the only question remaining for a record-setting U.S. Olympic team that on Saturday added an historic bobsled win — its first in four-man since 1948 — and assured itself of finishing atop the Winter Games' overall medal count for the first time in nearly eight decades.
"A phenomenal job," U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Scott Blackmun gushed.
"We couldn't be happier with their performance," USOC chairman Larry Probst echoed.
The USA pushed its medal total to 36, equaling the most it has piled up in a single Games. And a 37th is assured. The Americans meet Canada in Sunday's men's hockey final. Beat the Sidney Crosby-led Canadians for the second time in eight days, and they'll take gold on the men's ice for the first time since 1980's improbable Miracle On Ice upset of the then-dominant Soviet Union.
No need for miracles now.
The Americans have taken out some winter giants in these Games, including German bobsled great Andre Lange on Saturday. Steven Holcomb's four-man team, the last to slide down the super-fast track at the Whistler Sliding Center, beat the Germans by .38 of a second over two days of competition.
The Americans will be looking to beat Canada on its own turf -- one week after defeating their northern neighbors to close out the preliminary round. Team USA also hopes to do so on the 50th anniversary of winning its first gold, and 30 years after the "Miracle on Ice" team literally came out of nowhere to stun the international hockey world on its grandest stage.
"We believe we can win," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said. "I'm not guaranteeing we're winning the game, but we certainly believe we can. And why shouldn't we believe we can win the game?"
Why, indeed. The Americans have faced every challenge thrown their way and are still undefeated.
"We all talked, 'Wouldn't it be nice?' and now we have the opportunity," said Ryan Miller, who's allowed five goals while getting five wins and should get strong consideration as tournament MVP. "We have the talent. We have some youthful excitement, we have the right kind of veteran players."
Despite beating Canada already, there's also this payback angle: In 2002, the Canadians were celebrating after having won their sixth gold and Olympic high-tying 12th hockey medal by beating the United States in Salt Lake City.
"When it comes to hockey, nobody likes each other," Canada forward Corey Perry said before the Olympics.
Losing once already to the U.S. has been a painful experience felt across the Great White North. A second loss would be excruciating, then devastating.
"We love the chance of playing them again," Canada forward Jarome Iginla said. "There's a lot of rivalries with them -- from world juniors through the ladies. They beat us. Now we have the opportunity to play them again. It's going to be exciting, for the gold medal."