'Miracle' man Johnson leads U.S. women to gold medal game
Team USA's 9-1 win over Sweden avenged a 2006 semifinal upset in Turin
Players are eager to follow coach Mark Johnson, a 1980 gold medal winner
Finals opponent Canada has dominated the U.S. in their last seven games
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The Swedes had their version of the Miracle on Ice four years ago, when its women's team pulled off a shocking upset of the second-ranked Americans in their semifinal game in Turin. The 3-2 shootout victory was goalie Kim Martin's coming out -- but here in the semifinals in Vancouver, she would have perhaps been better off staying in. She allowed nine goals on 46 shots to a U.S. team relishing its chance for vengeance.
If there was a dose of déjà vu -- the same matchup in the same round against the same show-stealing goalie -- there is also one massive difference from 2006 for this American team, which has now outscored its opponents 40-2 after its 9-1 win over Sweden Monday afternoon. It now follows a singular voice, that of its head coach, Mark Johnson.
"Since August, he's been such an amazing leader for us," says forward Meghan Duggan. "He's so knowledgeable about the game and he just brings that energy every day.... He creates this atmosphere that is so driven by respect. Even at school, he has a rule for our team: Make good decisions. And I think that's kind of the rule he has for us here. There's a lot of trust between the coach and the team."
Johnson, the player that Herb Brooks said made his Miracle on Ice team go and the leading scorer in those Lake Placid Games 30 years ago, is now standing behind a group of 21 women who are just one win away from capturing their own gold. Johnson insists that the story isn't about him, that it's about a team stacked with talent and only getting better. Even though in his time with the women's national team, he has also created another winning program: he has three NCAA championships as women's head coach at Wisconsin.
"We respect him so much," says USA captain Natalie Darwitz. "He knows what we're going through right now as athletes because he's done it. And that's very important. To have full trust in your coach, his decision-making and everything, is huge for a player."
Back in 2006 that trust may have been strained by former Olympic coach Ben Smith's decisions, including the one to cut longtime U.S. hockey icon Cammi Granato. In Turin, the team didn't feel the same chemistry that it has here in Vancouver. "I think you sensed a little bit of anxiousness with the other coaches, and as players you can pick up on that," Darwitz says. "Whereas [with Johnson], it's the same thing as it was two months ago. It's the same game, just obviously in a different venue and in front of a world stage. But he doesn't relay that to us."
This time around they haven't gotten ahead of themselves, veterans like Darwitz and Jenny Potter said. "[In the 2006 semifinal], it's hard to say that everybody was looking past the game, but overall the team attitude was kind of like, you weren't there in the moment," Potter says. "With this team, we try to stay grounded."
The reality is that the U.S. women are back in a gold medal game for the first time since 2002, and they will again face archrival Canada (5-0 winners over Finland) in the main event, which will take place Thursday.
Canada has had the U.S.' number recently, winning six of the last seven games the teams played in the leadup to the Olympics. But Team USA is quick to remind people that in the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, Canada had dropped all eight games against the U.S. in the pre-Games tour but went on to beat the Americans on their home ice. Defenseman Angela Ruggiero remembers Salt Lake, remembers how with the game on the line in front of an American audience, she held her stick a little tighter, listened to the crowd a little more, and felt the expectation and desire to win take over. "Pressure's real," she says. "And they have a lot of pressure on them."
The U.S. women will try to spoil the Canadian hockey party that's been set up here in Vancouver and follow in the tracks of the men's team, which pulled off a stunning upset of Canada Sunday night. "Of course I [watched the game]," Darwitz says. "I was glued to the television back in the Village. Obviously, it was a huge inspiration for us ... For us, maybe it was a prelude to what we may be facing Thursday night."