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Saturday, February 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ron Judd

Miracle whipped: A stunning changing of the guard in women's hockey

Seattle Times staff columnist

TURIN, Italy — Do you believe in miracles?

Yah.

Everybody suspected this night would come — a night when a team like Sweden would show up to play big-time hockey against the U.S. or Canada, get some breaks, and steal a win.

Nobody expected it to happen this soon, especially in a medal round. And nobody, for the love of God and Walt Disney, expected the Euro infidels to bring us to our knees by using our Hollywood sap against us.

"We love that movie," Maria Rooth — giant-slayer in residence and Swedish forward — said of "Miracle," the film about American coach Herb Brooks' 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team.

"We've watched it many times together. We just said, 'It's time for another miracle.' "

Ouch.

Rooth, images of Kurt Russell dancing in her head, scored twice to erase an early American lead. Her teammate — and likely the next prime minister of Sweden — goalie Kim Martin, stopped 37 shots on the way to playing what even she had to admit was the greatest game in the net in all her 19 years.

"Yah. It was in the right time," she said with a smile.

She snuffed every U.S. shot on goal in a tiebreaking shootout as Sweden, shifting the axis of women's hockey, stunned America 3-2 to advance to Monday's gold-medal game against Canada. And shockingly, a U.S. medal no longer is a sure thing: To win the bronze on Monday, the U.S. will face Finland, a team that lost to Canada 6-0 Friday night, but gave the U.S. all it could handle in a recent meeting.

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Looking back, there were cracks in the facade of the U.S. team that grabbed the first women's gold in Nagano and lost it four years later to Canada in Salt Lake City. But nobody, not even the 5,654 in the stands, saw all this coming this soon.

No other team had ever beaten the U.S. or Canada in the Olympics. America's all-time record against Sweden was 25-0. In the runup to the last Olympics, the two teams played a series of exhibitions in which the U.S. outscored the Swedes 40-3.

This game was such a foregone conclusion, even the official Olympic News Service, which doesn't take sides, called it a day ago, predicting in pregame notes that, "This should be a no-contest."

It seemed that way until about halfway through. The record should reflect that Shoreline's Kelly Stephens scored the last goal in the era of North American domination of women's hockey.

It came on a power play, just a minute and four seconds into the second period.

Stephens, alone at the blue line, wound up for one of the few shots all night that didn't look basketball-big to Martin. The goalie barely saw it, and when it plinked into the net, the U.S. led 2-0.

Yawn. Another opponent on the ropes, waiting for the kill shot.

Except it never came.

Sweden scrapped, clawed and out America-ed the Americans, fighting for loose pucks, throwing their bodies in front of a barrage of power-play shots, taking advantage of American sloppiness on their own end.

"We thought that if you forecheck their defenders, they just might throw some pucks away," Rooth said.

They did. Rooth capitalized both times, one time flipping a stunning backhand shot past U.S. goalie Chanda Gunn while falling to the ice, the other time accepting a centering pass from Erika Holst and driving it home for a 2-2 tie.

American flags around the arena hung limp. The rest of the period was scoreless. It should not have been. For almost four minutes, Swedish penalties for rough-housing gave the blue-jerseyed Americans a five-on-three edge.

Martin, playing like a seasoned NHL keeper, came up huge. Again. Again. And again.

"We didn't bury the puck when we needed to," puffy-eyed U.S. defender Angela Ruggiero said.

"I think that gave us a lot of energy," Sweden's Holst said of the extended penalty kill.

The rest of the game was scoreless, as was a 10-minute "sudden-victory" overtime period — not for lack of trying by the U.S., which outshot Sweden 39-18 overall. When the horn sounded, a U.S.-Sweden tie seemed so improbable that everyone stood silently and waited for further instructions.

The shootout, the first in Olympic women's hockey history, was a simple affair. Each team sent five players to middle ice for a one-on-one with the other team's goalie.

U.S. players, who have been in shootouts in international play before, gave differing opinions on how often they practice the ritual. But it was hard to escape notice that when Gunn came onto the ice for her first try, she skated down to defend the wrong goal.

In the end, every U.S. player sent to the ice — Natalie Darwitz, Jenny Potter, Ruggiero and Krissy Wendell — missed or was snuffed out by Martin. Every Swedish player did likewise — except the final shooter, Rooth, who drove a wrist shot high and to the right of Gunn, sending the blue-and-yellow team into a center-ice pigpile.

American players sat there, stunned, invoking an eerie memory of the Soviet men's team in the same state of disbelief on Olympic ice 26 years before.

It was a bitter pill for the Americans, particularly the handful of veterans of that first-gold-medal Nagano squad. Back then, they cried tears of joy in the locker room for an occasion so historic that even Canada, their bitter enemy, got caught up in the moment.

Friday night, they were dripping tears of anguish, stunned that their place on top had come crashing so hard, only eight years later.

People will second-guess coach Ben Smith, who left longtime stalwart and team captain Cammi Granato off this squad. His players were having none of it.

"We have 20 great players," veteran forward Potter said. "We lose together and we win together."

Every tough day for every nation is cause for celebration in another. And every epic upset beams to an all-too-cynical world a new star so young, so talented and so fresh he or she doesn't even know it yet.

Exit Ruggiero and the cadre of past American women's ice heroes. Enter Rooth and teenage goalie Martin, who confessed that until Friday, she had never minded the net in a shootout in a major game.

Her secret to success?

"Have confidence," she said. "And believe."

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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