Come on, at the start of the Olympic tournament, who could have imagined that the Latvians would hang around longer than the mighty Russians? Who would have guessed that Ted Nolan would have a greater impact on this event that Alex Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin?
But as Nolan said after the qualifications, you never know in hockey.
Star-laden Russia, expected to express the renewed might of a nation, went away with barely a whimper, losing to Finland in the quarterfinals, 3-1. They simply never resembled a real team here.
Latvia, meanwhile, was everything a team is supposed to be. Nolan's guys believed in themselves, got a great performance from another goalie, and scared the daylights out of Canada – yes, Nolan's native Canada – before losing, 2-1, on a Shea Weber goal with 6:54 to play.
That's the wonderful thing about hockey. Hot goalies make all things possible. A team can get outshot, 57-16, and nearly win. If Latvia had pulled it off, people would be comparing it to the Americans' fabled miracle against the Soviet Union in 1980.
Instead, we get the U.S. versus Canada in a semifinal Friday. With apologies to Latvia, this is the game most hockey fans wanted, a rematch of the gold-medal game from four years ago, when Sidney Crosby beat Ryan Miller in overtime to win it for Canada.
And on a day of zaniness, the Americans were steady and predictable as junk mail. They just kept coming. The Czechs, who had almost as much star power as the Russians, were no match for a speedy, opportunistic U.S. team that eased into the semifinals with a 5-2 win.
This is not an entirely objective view. I've seen all four U.S. games. But they're the best team in the tournament, with the emphasis on “team.” Halfway through the opener, I thought they were as talented a U.S. Olympic team as I'd seen. Now they're the favorite.
It's not easy to pull a team together in a week and develop the kind of chemistry that takes months for normal sports teams. But somehow, the U.S. squad has forged a tight, competitive identity in a very short time.
“From the start, I think everyone bought into the team system and how we wanted to play,” said James van Riemsdyk, who scored just 1:39 into the game. “When you have that, it makes it easier to be consistent with how you're going to play.”
The U.S. has developed an attack personality. It takes an opposing goal as a personal affront. Ales Hemsky tied the game for the Czechs soon after van Riemsdyk's goal. The U.S. responded with goals by Dustin Brown and David Backes before the end of the first. It did the same thing in the opener against Slovakia, scoring six goals in about 10 minutes after the Slovaks tied it. They jumped on the Slovenians early in the third game.
I don't know who has done more for his reputation here – the Sabres' Nolan or the Pens' Dan Bylsma, who coaches the Americans. Bylsma has won over a lot of hockey-watchers with his thoughtful, concise interviews and his deft management of his hockey team.
Heading into the quarters, Bylsma made it clear that his team wasn't being assertive enough. They weren't using their speed to sufficient advantage, forcing the action and creating pressure on opposing defenses through the neutral zone.
The U.S. got the message. It attacked from the start against the Czechs, jetting through the middle of the larger ice and getting their defensemen to initiate the attack with quick passes.
“We wanted to play a quicker game,” Bylsma said, “a faster game. We thought we could be more aggressive and ready to skate. We knew this team had played a hard-fought game last night. We wanted to come out and play with speed, play with jump.
“I thought that was our best game in that regard – the way our players jumped and skated, the way we executed with the puck.”
They're rolling four lines and getting production from everywhere. Twelve different players have scored goals for the USA; 17 have recorded at least one point.
“It starts off the ice,” Max Pacioretty said. “Everyone on this team realizes you have to play for the team and check your ego at the door. All of us are the top players on our team back home, and you come here and you're asked to play different roles.
“You see everyone in the room willing to go to the dirty areas, block shots, make hits. It's nice to see when you see a guy like Patty Kane backchecking as hard as he can across the ice. It kind of puts things in perspective.”
Four years ago, they were an underdog. They rode a red-hot goalie, Ryan Miller, to the gold-medal game. So far in this Olympics, they're taking goalie Jonathan Quick for a ride.
Things promise to get tougher now. The Canadians have struggled to find their rhythm. There's a lot of pressure on Canada – the best hockey nation on the planet, the defending Olympic champion.
You can't overestimate how much that loss in Vancouver stuck with the USA players over those four years. The guys who were on that team – like Miller, Brooks Orpik, Kane – all talk about how much they wanted to come back and make it right, to turn silver into gold.
Their coach knows it, too. Bylsma didn't need to spend four years around his players to understand how much it would mean to them to win gold – and to go through the Canadians to get it.
“You don't want to get ahead of yourself,” Bylsma said. “We knew we were going to have some big games prior to this point. But we were looking forward to the possibility of this rematch. I know our guys are ready for it and looking forward to it – and wanted it.”
So here we are. After all the craziness, we're back to Canada and the United States in Olympic hockey. It's only a semifinal. Let's not forget about Finland and Sweden, who will be formidable opposition for whoever wins the battle of North America.
It won't be for the gold medal this time. But when people gather in front of the TV sets Friday, something tells me it'll feel like it.