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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- By the time the sun sets here Sunday, we are going to know an awful lot about this American hockey team.
By the time its final preliminary-round game against host Canada goes in the books, we are going to know whether Brian Burke's youthful, energetic squad has the jam to play with the world's best and whether it has a realistic shot at winning a medal here.
|David Backes and the United States beat Norway 6-1 in Thursday's preliminary-round game.|
We are going to find out about things like character and intensity and maturity, and even though it is not an elimination game, it looms as the biggest game in which most of these U.S. players have ever played. As a nation, the United States' game Sunday looms as its most important international contest since the gold-medal game in Salt Lake City in 2002.
In the moments after Thursday's uneven 6-1 win over Norway which gave the Americans a 2-0 record, you could almost feel the players hum with excitement at the prospects of Sunday's game.
"It's still that first round where if we lose, we're not going home, but it's a game where you want to make a statement against a team that is favored to win the tournament," said U.S. forward David Backes, who has been among the team's best forwards in the first two games. "It feels like another level. It's obviously another level of competition. I don't think anyone in the world would deny that. We'll see what we're made of on Sunday."
"I absolutely look forward to it. We'll be playing the best players in the world," Backes said. "Everyone in the world can see these games, and if we play a Canadian team that's favored, that has all the talent they do, who knows how many Hall of Famers, guys [who] print their All-Star tickets every year, it's a great test for a bunch of blue-collar Americans on Sunday."
The U.S. will take Friday off and then practice Saturday. The stakes are significant on a number of fronts.
The winner of Sunday's game will win its four-team pool and earn a bye through to the quarterfinals. The loser faces the prospect of having to play an additional qualifying game, as the bottom four teams must compete to earn a spot in the quarterfinals. The winner of Sunday's game also puts itself in a position to face a weaker opponent when the elimination games begin.
Those are the tangible stakes for the U.S. team.
What is more intriguing is how Sunday will be a barometer of cohesion and chemistry, and maybe even the will to win here.
"We know no one, as Burkie says, has bet a nickel on us in Vegas," said Chris Drury, who scored the second American goal Thursday. "I just think it's important every day, whether it's a practice day, game day or day off, that we're just growing as a team, on and off the ice.
"I think a lot of it is just going to be how hard we choose to play and how conscious we are of playing the right way -- on the right side of pucks, getting pucks deep. Not a lot of the fancy stuff that may have worked these first two games. It's going to be an NHL game Sunday, I imagine. Getting pucks in deep, getting through the neutral zone, limit turnovers, limit odd-man rushes, just like we do 82 times a year."
After the Americans slumbered their way through long parts of their win over Norway, they will have ramp up pretty much all elements of their game, from forechecking to breakouts to defensive play to the power play.
After taking a 3-0 lead early in the second period, the Americans seemed almost to be thinking ahead to the Canada game, as Norway scored a short-handed goal and nearly drew to within one on a number of occasions. That means nothing, of course, now that it's over.
"I think for a lot of our guys, it's going to be interesting to see where they are emotionally," Team USA coach Ron Wilson said. "I've been in these big games against Canada in the World Cups before and the Olympics. You have to maintain your composure. You want to be excited, but not to the point where you're dead after the first period or even after the warm-up.
"We've got a lot of young guys who haven't really played in huge games, I'm talking the Stanley Cup finals, and this is going to be unbelievable," Wilson said. "I'm anticipating one of the best atmospheres I've been in since probably the third game of the '96 World Cup."
That 1996 World Cup best-of-three series win against Canada was Wilson's finest hour as a coach. He will have his hands full getting his young squad in the right space for Sunday.
As a number of U.S. players pointed out, the Canadians will embarrass them in a hurry if they don't play smart.
But somewhere in the backs of their minds, they must also be thinking about the alternative -- about beating the Canadians in their own backyard and announcing to the rest of this Olympic tournament the Americans are here and they are for real.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.