When the U.S. men’s ice hockey team begins their journey for a gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, there will be one Group A opponent standing out above the rest.
In their second game of the Olympics, Dan Bylsma’s squad will face Russia on Feb. 15 in a highly anticipated matchup that should have major tournament implications. Though Slovakia is not considered a pushover in Group A, the U.S. will have their calendar circled for their showdown with Russia. According to Las Vegas odds makers, only Canada has a better chance of winning the gold than the host nation.
The U.S. is seeking their first gold medal since the famed “Miracle on Ice” team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, while Russia hopes to win their first gold medal since the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville.
The chances are slim that the U.S.-Russia game in Sochi will be able to match the intensity and drama of the 1980 semi-final, but it still promises to be among the most watched hockey games of the year.
Mike Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 U.S team, knows all too well what an encounter between the Americans and Russians means, especially to the players.
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In the “Miracle on Ice” game, Eruzione, which means “explosion” in Italian, beat Soviet goalie Vladimir Myshkin through a screen to give the U.S. the game-winning goal in the 4-3 upset that shocked the nation and the world. Prior to the Lake Placid Games, the Soviet Union had won the gold medal at the previous four Olympics.
Eruzione’s goal is still recognized as one of the most iconic sports moments of all time.
He believes this year’s contest between the U.S. and Russia will have huge implications for each country’s medal hopes, but the U.S. won’t be under the same scrutiny as Russia considering how they have failed to medal since 2002, when they won the bronze medal.
“Their country expects them to perform and to win because they’re a talented hockey team that’s underachieved in the last few Olympics,” Eruzione said in a phone interview. “I don’t think there will be as much pressure on them [the U.S.] as there clearly is on the Russians to win in their own backyard.”
Russia’s roster is loaded with talent, and led by perhaps the best player in the world. Washington Capitals right wing Alexander Ovechkin continues to be the best goal scorer in the NHL, and is on pace to finish with 60 goals in 2013-2014. The 28-year-old has 38 goals this season, while no other player in the league has 30.
Other elite NHL players include captain Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Nikolai Kulemin (Toronto Maple Leafs). In goal, Semyon Varlamov, of the Colorado Avalanche, and Sergei Bobrovsky, of the Columbus Blue Jackets, are enjoying solid NHL seasons.
Along with Slovakia, the U.S. will also face heavy underdog Slovenia in the group stage. The U.S. won’t overlook either country, but Russia is undoubtedly the most imposing and determined in Group A. Earlier this month, “Today” host Matt Lauer quipped that “you would get the feeling that the Russians would trade Edward Snowden for a gold.”
But Eruzione is confident this year’s U.S. team has what it takes to win the gold medal. The 1980 team was composed of players with no professional experience, while this year’s roster is loaded with some of the NHL’s top players.
“I don’t see why they can’t perform well and win it,” Eruzione said. “I hope they do for their sake. This is their opportunity to do something pretty special and that’s to win a gold medal.”
The Americans will have plenty of scorers in Sochi, including Dustin Brown (Los Angeles Kings), Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers), Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) as well as Ryan Kesler (Vancouver Canucks), among others. But the squad will have an almost entirely remade defense, as only Brooks Orpik (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Ryan Suter (Minnesota Wild) return from 2010 in Vancouver.
The U.S. is stacked at perhaps the most important position: goalie. Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres and Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings are considered among the best netminders in the world. They are expected to share duties in Sochi.
“The bottom line in any tournament is it comes down to goaltending and I think that’s where our strong point is, whether it’s Quick or Miller, the strength of this team is in goal,” Eruzione said. “I think the goalie that performs the best is probably going to be the team that wins this thing.”
Should Quick or Miller hold off Russia in the group stage, it could serve as a momentum builder for the medal rounds. With Canada and Sweden expected to contend for a medal, the U.S. would get a major confidence boost with a victory over the host nation.
Since the “Miracle on Ice” game, the U.S. and Russia have faced each other five times in the Olympics, including twice in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. In those games, the U.S. has a 1-3-1 record against Russia. Their most recent meeting was at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, where the Russians defeated the Americans, 5-4.
Greg Price and an IB Times staff reporter contributed to this report.