VANCOUVER - Waiting interminably for the medal ceremony to begin, Ryan Miller played the final goal over and over and over again. His eyes would close. His head would drop. He would shake his head, look to the reddened stands, wipe his reddened eyes and repeat the process all over again.

"The puck got caught in the ref's feet or someone's feet," he would say later, his eyes still wide open, like a man in shock. "Got to Sidney's stick. He had his head down for a second and . . . ''

And, and, and - well, the game every fan in America wanted to see ended with the result that none, not even those in Pittsburgh, wanted. A 3-2 overtime loss to Canada, Sidney Crosby slipping a wide-angle shot between Miller's pads after the United States had rallied from a 2-0 hole and tied the game on Zach Parise's rebound goal with 24.4 seconds left, after Patrick Kane, of the U.S., had put on a dazzling two-period display of speed and skill.

The miracle on ice this time was the game itself, played for 67 minutes, 40 seconds at a breathtaking and break-neck pace. Breathtaking if you were Kane or Crosby or anyone who jumped on and off the ice. Breathtaking if you were one of the lucky 18,000 fans or so who managed to get inside the building or among the 100,000 who assembled outside of it, or among the millions who watched in both countries.

Great speed, big hits, every player laying out. No trapping, stopping or freezing the puck.

The first period took 32 minutes of real time to complete.

The second took 33 minutes of real time to complete.

When the game and ceremony finally ended, the lines at the bathrooms made it seem like something was being given out.

"Being at home here," Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger was saying. "Game-winning goal. Overtime. We're going to see a lot of kids growing up now dreaming that they're Crosby scoring that goal in overtime for an Olympic gold medal.

"To be part of those kids' dreams is pretty special."

Crosby scored only four goals in this tournament. Two won overtime games. And yet this was a tournament that made new stars, that made names recognizable in American households in those places where, as Miller said the other day, "We're not even a cult." Even in hockey-happy places like Philadelphia, Patrick Kane means much more than he did 2 weeks ago, as does Ryan Kesler and, yes, Ryan Miller.

Miller was the face of this United States effort, right down to the bittersweet end. He stopped 40 shots in the United States' 5-3 victory over Canada on Feb. 21. He stopped 36 yesterday, including a semibreakaway by Crosby that would have pushed Canada's lead to 3-1. Later, he somehow snared Shea Weber's laser through traffic with his glove, then denied Mike Richards point-blank - he didn't get good wood - at 17:25.

He was every bit as good as Jim Craig was in 1980, maybe even better. Against a red team that was every bit as talented as that old Soviet Union group, maybe even better. He went 123 minutes in this tournament without allowing a goal before Jonathan Toews pushed a rebound past him at 12:50 of the first period yesterday.

Moreover, he got it. Introspective, intellectual, a creature of routine, Miller answered for Team USA with a big-picture perspective, right to the bitter end.

Crosby had just been thwarted trying to squeeze through the U.S. defense, a signature move. The puck got pushed to the half-boards, and Crosby beat Brian Rafalski there by a blink. He shoveled it to Jarome Iginla in the corner, bounced toward the net, received the pass.

"He got his head up just as I was about to make a decision," Miller said, the agony still on his face 30 minutes afterward. "I had been aggressive all tournament, and I wasn't going to change my game just because we were in overtime."

Miller lurched ever so slightly, anticipating a pull move by Crosby toward the front of the net. "He's a lefthanded shot," Miller said. It made sense. Instead, said Crosby: "I just shot it. I don't know how it went in. Maybe five-hole."

Five-hole it was. Miller crumpled to his knees, stared straight ahead for a few seconds as if he could will time backward. "I knew it was in," he said. "I felt like bleep."

He then teetered facefirst to the ice. Crosby bounced around on his skates in the corner, waiting for his team to mob him, absorbing a blood-red scene that, he said, "Doesn't even feel real."

Minutes later, after every red shirt in the place had hugged and kissed at least a dozen other red shirts in the place, the teams lined up for their medals. The United States went first, and the entire place rose to its feet for yet another deafening ovation. Moments later, when Miller's name was announced, the noise pushed to the roof, and for a moment at least, he left his grief to acknowledge them.

"It didn't help," he said. "It still stings."

"You come in and think of the feeling of winning gold," Kane said. "You don't get another chance at it. You have to wait 4 years."

It's a long wait. But maybe things will be a little different the next time around. Many from this team will be back, will be at their peak. Maybe there will even be a few more cults of hockey, people who will recall what Kesler, Kane, Miller and the boys nearly accomplished here.

"We proved it's not just Canada's game," Kesler said. "We beat them once and we took them to overtime this time . . . This is our game, too." *

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