Right now Seth Jones, John Gibson, Jake McCabe and the rest of Team USA are gearing up for their gold-medal game against the Swedes, at least mentally. As riled up as I am for the tilt, which will take place at 8 a.m. (again, EST) on Saturday morning, I can't imagine what the players themselves are going through.
What is running through their heads as they prepare for the biggest hockey game of their lives up to this point? None of them have had a chance to play a meaningful NHL game yet. In fact, glancing up and down their roster, you won't find any professional regulars.
While Canada boasted (oh, how sweet past tense can be) a ridiculously potent attack centered around no less than five would-be NHL players and more than 10 first-round picks, the United States received contributions from the unlikeliest of sources. Team USA is suiting up with just five first-round draft picks. Not NHL players. Just picks.
And they are getting the job done when it matters most.
Alex Galchenyuk is the highest pick—and arguably the most talented player—available to the United States on a nightly basis. He has been stellar when given space, but his biggest contribution has probably been drawing the coverage of teams who seem to believe that he, and he alone, is the single offensive threat Team USA has available.
That couldn't be further from the case.
As good as Galchenyuk has been, he's currently being mildly upstaged by the 104th overall pick from the Calgary Flames. While Galchenyuk is an outstanding hockey player, in this tourney he hasn't been the epitome of what it means to pull on the stars and stripes.
That distinction belongs to "Huh? Who?" John Gaudreau. He of nine points in six games played, seemingly coming out of nowhere to drive nails through the hearts of all who oppose Team USA and fail to recognize them as a threat.
It's the unsung ones, and not the guys you see coming, that make America special. If Canada can lay some kind of misplaced claim to producing players that somehow magically have another competitive gear, then the United States can claim to raise hockey players that, in the eyes of the international community, shouldn't even be hockey players.
Rocco Grimaldi could have been kept out of the show because of his height. Could you imagine any other international squad dressing a 5'6'', 165-pound player in the Olympics of not-quite professional hockey? He has only put up two points, but he wouldn't have had the chance if he hailed from any other country than America.
Cornell University product Cole Bardreau wasn't even drafted by an NHL team, and is listed as a free agent. You'll be hard-pressed to find any "passed over" players skating with any other WJC squad. Yet he has made plenty of noise for the Americans so far despite only having a couple of points.
Hero-in-net John Gibson went in the middle of the second round to the Anaheim Ducks, and wasn't thought to be capable of hijacking games from squads like the Canadians and the Swedes. Yet here he is, putting up one of the more impressive goaltending performances in recent memory.
The list goes on. But of you'd asked any pundit from any other country: "Do you think a team featuring players from Florida, Texas, Ohio and California will be able to take you down?", the resounding answer would have been "no." And it probably would have been followed by a laugh.
Yet the United States finds itself one win away from its third gold medal in WJC competition.
So why does this matter? Why does this particular game in this particular tourney mean so much?
The answer is quite simple, really. It would mean that the nontraditional hockey markets in the United States have finally started to produce top-end, big-game talent. After all the hoopla and shouting and crying and moaning about Florida having two teams while Quebec doesn't have one, things would finally make sense.
The investment of the forsaken Gary Bettman would finally begin to show dividends.
Look at the roster yourself. This isn't a team of players from just Minnesota and Wisconsin anymore. This is a group of players from all over the United States. This is a team that just beat the holy hell out of a loaded Canadian team and is heading into its final game against Sweden eyeing a gold.
And that, in and of itself, is a massive deal—that teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks have piked enough interest over the years that those youngsters are starting to make a difference in international play.
A lot of these guys are young, and this is only the first wave of what is to come. Live on television—or rewound on DVR if you can't manage the early start times— we are witnessing the beginnings of a hockey superpower.
I'm not promising that Team USA will beat the Swedes. And in the event that they do, I'm not guaranteeing that they will be able to defend the gold next year. What I am swearing, however, is that this will be the last year the Americans won't be taken seriously.
The guys in the red, white and blue have made it clear that any team that fails to recognize their talent and tenacity won't be playing for a medal. Don't sleep on the United States. Ever again. That's the statement this team has made in Ufa, Russia. And if you do, they'll be happy to bury your national dreams of pride and conquest in a hailstorm of Google searches.
"Just who was that guy that beat us, again?"
It doesn't get much more American than that.
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