VANCOUVER - Saturday night, the U.S. Olympic hockey team prepared for its Sunday showdown with Canada by dining together at a Vancouver restaurant. As the Americans rose to leave, the rest of the patrons serenaded them with a loud version of "O Canada."
Sunday, a couple of Minnesotans responded: No, Canada.
Cloquet's Jamie Langenbrunner and Blaine's David Backes served as blindfolds to legendary Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur, and their teammates acted like a firing squad as the Americans upset Canada's hockey team and national psyche, 5-3, at a rowdy and all-red Canada Hockey Place.
Langenbrunner screened Brodeur on the Americans' first two goals, both by defenseman Brian Rafalski. Backes harassed Brodeur on the third. Langenbrunner tipped in the fourth. Another Minnesotan, Zach Parise, assisted on Ryan Kesler's empty netter, which thwarted a desperate Canadian rally.
"This proves that we can do what we were brought here to do," Backes said. "Do something special.
"Maybe there will be a little less yelling on the streets tonight. Friday night, walking back to the hotel, was a little scary at times. I wore a USA hat and shirt and I had to kind of get my wife under my wing and scoot out of there, because there was a little alcohol flowing and a lot of fun to be had."
One Canadian fan, with maple leafs painted on his cheeks, waved a flag reading: "Hockey Is OUR Game." Sunday, the Canadian team looked more talented, but the Americans adhered to their game plan and justified their roster construction, playing with more grit and opportunism than their emotionally charged hosts.
"We talked about screening shots," Langenbrunner said of Brodeur, his New Jersey Devils teammate. "We know when you have a good goalie, you have to make it hard on him.
"That was how you draw it up if you have the perfect game plan. Try to score on the first shift and take the crowd out of it. We started out playing very well and then we weathered some storms."
Backes put it in plainer terms: "I just had to get in front of the net and use my big butt."
Growing up in Cloquet, Langebrunner dreamed of playing hockey in the Olympics. He probably didn't dream of standing in front of the net, getting tenderized by defensemen, poked by angry goaltenders and peppered by incoming shots.
Langenbrunner may have a future as a crash test dummy, a piñata, or a gold medal winner. "We put ourselves into that upper group," Langenbrunner said, "where we believe we should be."
U.S. General Manager Brian Burke built a team of role players, which is why Langenbrunner is his captain. Sunday's victory means the U.S. will receive a bye and play next in the Olympic quarterfinals, while the Canadians will have to play an extra game against Germany for the right to face a talented Russian team in the quarters.
Langenbrunner wasn't sure he'd make the team; now he's the captain of a contender. "Oh, I had lots of doubts whether I'd be on this team," Langenbrunner said. "I hadn't been on an Olympic team since '98. I was far from a shoo-in."
The atmosphere in Vancouver, inside and outside of the area, was that of a Mardi Gras where everyone keeps their shirts on.
Imagine if the NHL staged an All-Star Game, and both teams actually wanted to win.
Imagine if the Pro Bowl mattered.
Imagine if an entire nation stopped breathing every time a puck hit tape.
Sunday afternoon, no imagination was necessary. Canada and the U.S. played the most anticipated game of the hockey tournament to date, one day before the 30th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, and the game was taut enough to make a nation gasp, disappointing enough to make a city groan.
"This was a big game for us," Langenbrunner said. "But we said in our team meeting this morning that this is not our biggest game of the tournament."
It won't be hard to find Langenbrunner and Backes in the quarterfinals. They'll be the guys in front of the opponent's net.
By Sunday afternoon, they plan to have welts on the back of their legs, and medals around their necks.
Jim Souhan can be heard at 10-noon Sunday on AM-1500. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org