Phil Sheridan: U.S. has nothing to be ashamed of

030110_sheridan01_400
U.S. forward and Cherry Hill native Bobby Ryan (center) accepts his silver medal. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)

VANCOUVER - The men of Team Right Stuff didn't have to lower their heads to accept their silver medals. Their heads were already hanging - from exhaustion and from disappointment and from the fresh sting of losing, yes, but not from shame.

They lost one of the greatest Olympic hockey games ever played because the world's best player scored in overtime on his home soil. It was a final worthy of the advance billing, a fitting end to the Vancouver Games, and Team USA played a gallant role yesterday.

"This was a classic hockey game," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said.

"We proved that it's not just Canada's game," forward Ryan Kesler said. "We took them to overtime. We beat them once already. It was anybody's game in overtime. They played a good game and I thought we played a good game, too. To come up short definitely hurts. We deserved better."

But this was a story so good and so fitting, it demanded to be written this way. Sidney Crosby, the most scrutinized player on the team under the most pressure, fired the shot that kids all over Canada will be re-creating on ponds and in local rinks for years.

It was a beautiful little example of a North American hockey play, and the two players who made it never saw how it ended.

Crosby slapped the puck back toward the corner. Teammate Jarome Iginla and American defenseman Ryan Suter went in after it. Crosby started moving toward the net a split-second before Brian Rafalski, the other defenseman on the ice, could react.

"He outmuscled the guy [Suter]," Crosby said. "That's what it came down to, a little one-on-one battle. He won it and we were able to capitalize."

Iginla heard Crosby yelling for the puck.

"He was screaming, 'Here, Iggy!' " Iginla said. "He was yelling pretty urgently."

Crosby took the pass, centered it on his stick, and turned. Standing between him and hockey history was Ryan Miller, who was voted MVP of the Olympic tournament. Crosby shot.

Iginla, knocked down by Suter, didn't see it. Crosby didn't see where it went. Judging by the way the puck spiraled through the gap between his pads, Miller didn't see it, either.

A rink away, Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo saw it. Sort of.

"I didn't know for sure," Luongo said. "I've seen that release before. It's hard to pick up. When you shoot it real quick like that, it's hard to close it. The feeling that goes through your body when Sid scores like that, it's unreal."

That feeling shot through all of Canada. It was the sonic boom in the arena that told Crosby, Iginla, and most of their teammates just what had happened.

"Literally, I couldn't even see the puck," Crosby said. "I shot it and I couldn't see where it went. I just heard everyone screaming."

"Everybody was cheering and I couldn't believe it," Iginla said. "It was done. I didn't see where he put it. It was awesome."

As the Canadians rushed Crosby in the corner, the U.S. team gathered at the far end, stunned that it was suddenly over. Team USA had a remarkable run through this tournament, beating Canada a week before. Things looked bad when the Canadians took a 2-0 lead in the second period.

"It trickled through my mind when they went up 2-nil, I hope we don't fall apart at the seams here," Cherry Hill native Bobby Ryan said. "There wasn't really a doubt. This is a great group of guys, a group of guys I'll never forget."

Instead, Kesler created a pretty goal, feeding Patrick Kane and then tipping in Kane's shot, to make it 2-1. Crosby had a breakaway midway through the period, but Miller stopped him. It was a play with huge repercussions on both sides.

The Americans were still within one play of tying the score. The Canadians suddenly began to play very tight in order to make that slim lead stand.

"You get a 2-1 lead and you've got the whole country watching," Crosby said. "You want to win so bad. You're staring at the clock, it's ticking away slowly."

Then Zach Parise slid the puck past Luongo with just 24.4 ticks left in the third period. Incredibly, the Americans had forced an overtime. All of Canada inhaled. The final event of the Olympics would be decided by one play. One mistake. One shot. One player.

As galling as it is for the hockey fanatics who see him as favored by the NHL and its officials - think Michael Jordan in his heyday - it had to be Crosby. Had to be Sid the Kid.

"Guys like that find a way," Flyers defenseman and Team Canada stalwart Chris Pronger said. "Pretty fitting, I guess. It's a storybook ending."

It was a story with plenty of heroes and no villains. It was the story of a breathtaking hockey tournament ending with a nation exhaling at once. It was Canada's story, ultimately. Team Right Stuff turned it into a classic.

 


Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.