Thursday, February 21, 2002
U.S. vs. Russia takes on titanic proportion
By E.J. Hradek
ESPN The Magazine
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Since the legendary 1980 "Miracle on Ice" game and with the emergence of the United States as a hockey power, Olympic meetings between the United States and the Soviet Union/Unified Team/Commonwealth of Independent States/Russia have taken on a very special significance for Americans.
In fact, it is one hockey happening that even non-hockey fans want to see. Last Saturday's seeding-round game (a 2-2 tie), which started at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBC, drew the highest U.S. television rating of any hockey game (NHL or Olympic) since the gold medal in 1980.
Because Friday's semifinal (6:15 p.m. ET) between the hockey superpowers will be played on the 22nd anniversary of the 1980 U.S.-Soviet game and starts at an earlier time, the telecast should draw an even higher number.
In the media, there's been a lot of talk of "fate" or "destiny" for the U.S. team. At his off-day press briefing. U.S. coach Herb Brooks, who has been downplaying a lot of the talk about 1980, admitted that even Russia coach Slava Fetisov asked him if he thought it was "eerie" that they were meeting on the exact anniversary of the 1980 game.
But, despite the tremendous amount of hype and emotion surrounding the game, the U.S. players know that once the puck is dropped, a 22-year-old memory won't do them any good.
"It's a great game to be a part of," said USA/Bruins forward Bill Guerin. "We know all the history. But, as players, we can't get caught up in that.
"There'll be a lot of emotion," Guerin said. "But, we'll have to be professional about it -- to keep it in check -- to perform at our best."
Team USA/Blues right wing Scott Young, who has enjoyed a surprisingly productive tournament, believes the fact that much of the team has been together for many international competitions will help them stay focused.
"We've been through a lot of things together," says Young, who has three goals in the Americans' four games. "We were able to go to Montreal and beat Canada in the World Cup in '96. If we can keep our cool through something like that, I think we'll be fine."
Brooks, who says there are no similarities between the 1980 game and the upcoming semifinal, also believes his players will keep their emotions intact.
"These guys have played in so many big games," Brooks said. "So, I don't think it will be a problem. We'll get to a high emotional level and freeze it right there."
Brooks knows his team needs to be patient and execute the game plan.
"We've got to clean up our play around their offensive blue line," Brooks said. "Their defense is smart and mobile so they can turn the puck around us if we're not careful.
"Also, it will be important for us to win the race to the red line. We need to penetrate their zone off the rush and get a good forecheck. We'll be looking to get some consistency to our attack."
On the other side of the puck, the Americans know one thing they must do.
"We have to keep them out of the middle of the ice," Guerin says. "They have so many really skilled players, they'll kill you if you give them the middle."
Brooks expects a counter-punching attack from Fetisov's Russian team. But, he knows they have the speed and skill to play a more aggressive game, putting pressure on the American defenders.
As usual, a game of this magnitude likely will be decided by the goaltenders. Although Brooks didn't announce it, everyone expects Ranger goalie Mike Richter to get the start. Richter was superb in Saturday's tie, stopping 33 of 35 shots. Richter is 1-0-1 in the Olympics after blanking the Germans 5-0 on Wednesday.
At the other end of the rink, Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin will make his fifth consecutive start for Team Russia. Khabibulin turned in his best game of the tournament against the Czech Republic on Wednesday, stopping all 41 shots en route to a 1-0 victory.
"Khabibulin was the hottest goalie coming into the Olympic Games," Brooks said. "It's not the number of shots you get on him, but you have to get quality shots. But like all goaltenders, they have good days and bad days."
Clearly, Brooks and his team hope to make it a very bad day for the Russian goalie and his mates. A day that American fans can remember for a long time.
E.J Hradek writes for ESPN The Magazine.