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vancouver games

What’s Next for the U.S. Hockey Team?

Team USA's upset win over Canada last night may not have been miraculous, but it does have one thing in common with the 1980 victory over the Soviets: It won the United States exactly nothing. The Miracle on Ice team still had to defeat Finland to win gold, and this year's team still has the entire playoff portion of the tournament to look forward to. But the win puts them in great shape.

Because Sweden beat Finland late last night,* and did so by only three goals, the Americans clinched the top overall seed. By doing so, not only do they get a bye to the quarterfinals, but they avoid playing one of the tournament's seven elite teams once they get there. Both the United States and Sweden ran the table in the preliminary round — Henrik Lundqvist, by the way, has yet to give up a goal in these Olympics — but the Americans won the tie-breaker thanks to a superior goal differential. Those late goals against Norway (two of which were scored by last night's offensive hero, Brian Rafalski) look pretty important now, as does the Fins' kill of Joni Pitkanen's five-minute major last night, when the score was already 3–0.

Teams aren't reseeded after each round — there's an actual bracket in place from here on out — so the U.S. team already knows it will play the winner of tomorrow's Switzerland-Belarus contest. Belarus earned three points in the first round, by virtue of beating Germany in regulation. Switzerland earned three points as well, but they're the more dangerous team here. In addition to an overtime win over Norway, they hung with the Americans in the opening game of the tournament, and took the Canadians to overtime, which we're sure is a key point being made in all of the hate mail Martin Brodeur is receiving today.

Switzerland's not a total pushover, but it's a much better draw than, say, Canada's potential round-of-eight opponent: Russia, whose best player demonstrated yesterday that he can and will do this to the opposition's best player. One of those two teams — the ones everyone expected to compete for gold — will finish this tournament without a medal, while the U.S. is a win over Switzerland (or Belarus) away from the semifinals. Go figure.


* It was late enough that you may have missed Jeremy Roenick's between-periods apology to Chris Drury — the one we'd demanded earlier in the night. In the interest of spreading the word, Roenick said the following at 12:45 this morning: "This is my national apology to Chris Drury." We suspect that'll have to do.

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Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images