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No miracle needed: U.S. can win hockey gold

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Yahoo Sports Videos

Team USA looking golden?

Team USA looking golden?

SOCHI, Russia – Phil Kessel blew through the Slovenia defense and scored just 1:04 into the game. A couple minutes later he did it again, brilliantly batting the puck out of the air and into the net, en route to a hat trick on the day.

By that point, less than five minutes into Sunday's game, Slovenia was essentially done, any fear of a Russian-game hangover was dashed and the United States men's hockey team was on its way to a 5-1 victory, a sweep of the preliminary round and a bye into the quarterfinals.

Which makes one thing clear about these Sochi Games.

It's time to go win this thing.

There is still a notion among many non-hardcore fans back in America that Team USA remains some kind of underdog. Maybe it's the lingering memories of Lake Placid. These aren't college kids, though.

[Related: Puck Daddy's Sochi Olympic hockey medal predictions]

Click the above photo for more pictures of USA v. Slovenia.

The U.S. has won silver in two of the last three Olympics. In Vancouver, it lost in overtime to the home team Canada, which it previously defeated. It is a world power just waiting to break through.

And here in Sochi, through three games, no one has been more impressive than the Americans. You can argue the Canadians look equally as good, but they also didn't face the same competition – namely beating Russia in Russia.

There are no guarantees in a one-and-done tournament. Anything can and does happen. But thus far, pretty much everything the U.S. wanted has happened.

[Photos: T.J. Oshie is a regular guy off the ice]

"I still think there is room for improvement, but for the first three games I don't think you can argue with the results," captain Zach Parise, the Minneapolis native, said.

The concept of bringing a fully formed team here – counting on a mix of stars and role players – has delivered. The young defense, almost all under 25 years old, has proven up to the task. Jonathan Quick was brilliant in net the first two games and backup Ryan Miller stepped in against the Slovenians and merely pitched a shut out for 59-plus minutes.

There is improved speed. Everyone is healthy. The special teams have been good. Coach Dan Bylsma said he actually wished the penalty kill unit got more time to gel, which is essentially an embarrassment of good fortune.

And, of course the idea of choosing a player such as T.J. Oshie for a specific skill set – a willingness to block shots and a world-class ability to convert penalty shotsworked famously.

This is just an excellent hockey team – a gold medal team.

"They are a medal contender for sure for me," Slovenia coach Matjaz Kopitar said.

Canada may have more talent, but there also is a challenge in managing it all. That's not the case here. Everyone has a role, everyone knows the role and everyone has accepted the role.

[Photos: U.S. beats Russia in a hockey shootout]

"This is a hard-working team that has some grit and determination," Bylsma said.

Everyone around this team is here to win the gold. Everyone who knows international hockey knows the U.S. takes a back seat to no one anymore. A slew of Canadian stars, including Sidney Crosby, took in Saturday's game against Russia from Row 10 of Section 117 for a reason, and it wasn't just to watch as fans.

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Blake Wheeler takes a shot in USA's win over Slovenia. (USA TODAY Sports)

"I've said before, in 1980, we might have opened the door, but today's players have knocked it down," said Mike Eruzione, the captain of the Miracle on Ice team. "An Olympic team since the pros went into the Games … we're a favorite. We have a chance to win."

The preliminary rounds here have done nothing to quell that belief. If anything, this has been a team that has shown great focus, taking each day on its own and realizing that this is a brief, quick tournament, a desperate tournament, and any kind of bobble can cause it to end in a hurry.

That silver medal in Vancouver only sharpened the resolve, especially the holdovers that tasted the bitter defeat. They aren't here for second place.

"I think as a group we have that hunger to win," Parise said.

[Related: Phil Kessel scores three to help U.S. rout Slovenia 5-1]

"I don't know how you quantify 'want' but … this much?" said forward Dave Backes of Minneapolis, stretching his arms as wide as possible. "This is a chance for us to have a moment, this generation of players … we feel like we have an opportunity to do something special here."

Because they needed overtime to defeat the Russians (earning two points rather than three), the Americans are seeded second behind only Sweden. But Sweden didn't play a single opponent of such caliber, though.

Either way, this offers a bye through the first round with no games until Wednesday and sets up a rematch of the 2010 gold-medal game against Canada in the semifinals.

From here on out, it's win or go home, but through three games – two blowouts and an emotional challenge against the Russians – this team has shown itself as the most accomplished of this tournament.

No, it won't be easy, but the chance for hockey immortality, to go up there with 1960 and 1980, to show that U.S. players of this era are as good as anywhere in the world, is right in front of them.

The Americans are plenty good and plenty motivated enough.

Now it's time to finish.

Memorable Moments – USA vs. Russia became an instant classic:

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