They pictured themselves here, playing for an Olympic gold medal, even if few others shared their vision or recognized the power of their unshakable cohesiveness.
But not for an instant did anyone connected with the U.S. Olympic hockey team expect to score six times in the first 12 minutes 46 seconds of their semifinal against Finland on Friday and barge into Sunday’s final with a 6-1 rout.
“The first 14 minutes, we were all over them,” forward Ryan Kesler said. “If you had asked anybody in our locker room if we’d be up 6-0 after the end of the first, we’d all look at you crazy.
“It was one of those games we were thinking a 1-0, 2-1 game, and we just jumped on them early and kept coming.”
Now they’re in the final.
“As a kid you grew up wishing for these opportunities, and to be part of it is going to be awesome,” said forward Ryan Malone, one of three U.S. players who recorded a goal and an assist to entertain a roaring crowd at Canada Hockey Place.
“We’re 60 minutes away from something great, and I think we all also realize we haven’t done anything yet. We’re going to keep that even-keel mind-set and keep going.”
The U.S. (5-0) will face Canada, which defeated Slovakia, 3-2, in the other semifinal Friday. Team USA is approaching the finale with its confidence fortified by a dominant performance. The decisive margin allowed U.S. Coach Ron Wilson to rest goaltender Ryan Miller for the final 11 minutes and give backup Tim Thomas a few minutes of Olympic glory.
“I would have been happy to come out of the period up, 1-0,” Wilson said. “Then it was 2-0, 3-0, 4-0.”
Then 5-0 and then 6-0.
“It was a nightmare,” Finland forward Teemu Selanne said.
The obvious culprit -- but hardly the only one -- was Finland goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who entered the game with a tournament-best .947 save percentage but looked like a mediocre recreational league player.
Kiprusoff sabotaged his teammates when he flubbed a pass intended for one of his defensemen and put the puck on the stick of Malone, who had too much net to miss and scored at 2:04.
Under pressure every shift from the Americans’ forechecking and physical play, Finland yielded goals to Zach Parise, Erik Johnson and Patrick Kane, the first of two Kane produced.
Kiprusoff was pulled after Kane’s second goal, a slicing backhander on the Americans’ seventh shot. But Team USA wasn’t done yet as Kane and Paul Stastny scored within 15 seconds on backup Niklas Backstrom. Finland scored its only goal, by Antti Miettinen, with 5:14 left in the third period.
“It was quite a hockey game,” Finland Coach Jukka Jalonen said. “Not easy to forget, I would say.”
Not for anyone involved.
“That was a very good game for us. We were very organized. I think we even took our foot off the gas a little bit, trying to be conservative,” said Miller, who shut out Switzerland in the quarterfinals and hasn’t yielded a goal since 16:31 of the third period of Team USA’s preliminary-round finale against Canada.
“But if we keep making plays and pushing like we did in the first period, we’re a tough team to hang with.”
That toughness is as much mental as physical. The Americans weren’t considered a favorite here, and their general manager, Brian Burke, relished telling anyone who would listen that Canada had “glacial” pressure and his own team had none.
“The media wrote us off, fans wrote us off. Everyone wrote us off,” U.S. and Kings defenseman Jack Johnson said. “But everyone in that locker room, we knew we could do it.
“We expected to be here. I’ve got a lot of medals in my house from international tournaments and a lot of them are gold. We knew we could do that.”
Miller said he and his teammates had no preference for their opponent in the final.
“We’re happy we made it this far, happy we had a good game today,” he said, “and hopefully we can put that kind of performance on the ice again Sunday.”