HELSINKI -- More than 33 years since a fateful day in Lake Placid, New York, that forever changed international ice hockey and the perception of the sporting rivalry between two superpower nations, the “Miracle on Ice” was briefly a topic of discussion following Team USA’s practice on Wednesday.
A Russian journalist asked U.S. captain Paul Stastny, half-jokingly, if it will be another “Miracle on Ice” if the United States can beat defending world champion Russia in Thursday’s quarterfinal elimination game.
Stastny, who has emerged as the dynamic leader of a young U.S. squad – which averages just 24.8 years of age – calmly responded, “I don’t know about a “Miracle on Ice” – there’s too much parity I think now in world hockey. Every team is pretty good now and every team has a chance to beat anybody.”
Team USA twice had one-goal advantages in last week’s 5-3 preliminary round loss to Russia, a hard-fought battle in which they relinquished the lead for good 11 minutes into the second period. A United States (5-2) victory in tomorrow afternoon’s rematch versus Russia (5-2) would punch their ticket to Stockholm, Sweden, for Saturday’s world championship semifinals.
“We just had a couple of bad turnovers and backed off too much and they had a lot of chances,” said Stastny, who has contributed four goals and five assists in seven games, about the previous contest against their Russian rivals.
“It was the first time that a lot of our guys played against Russia and maybe we were too busy watching a little bit because they are the defending world champions and they have so many highly skilled players,” Stastny said. “But we can’t worry too much about they do, we have to worry about what we do.”
Adding to that challenge and an already formidable Russian offense which has notched 29 goals in seven games, tied for first in the tournament, will be Alexander Ovechkin. The 27-year-old forward will make his ninth appearance at the world championship, having scored 26 goals and 18 assists in 55 career games. He helped Russia win gold last year and in 2008.
Ovechkin did not arrive on time for Russia’s team practice on Wednesday as he was en route to Helsinki from Washington D.C., where his Capitals were eliminated from the NHL playoffs on Monday night. However, Ovechkin was expected to skate for 15 minutes Wednesday evening on the Hartwall Arena ice.
“When he’s out there, you have to watch out, he’s another dangerous player that can score,” Stastny said about Ovechkin. “Guys will be more aware and make smart decisions, but at the same time we want to play our game. We’ll give him respect, but hopefully not too much respect and play the way we want to play, and then we’ll put ourselves in good position.”
“When he and Kovalchuk are on the ice you have to know it and give them a little more attention,” said U.S. Head Coach Joe Sacco about the two offensive threats. “Obviously, Ovechkin is a world-class player and he’s going to change the look and complexion of their line-up.”
Ilya Kovalchuk led all scorers in the preliminary round with 13 points, including eight goals.
The United States enters Thursday’s contest with the second best power play in the tournament at 32 percent (8-25).
“Our special teams have been clicking all tournament,” said Stastny, who scored two goals, one on the power play against Russia in their previous match. “That’s an important factor – if you can get one on the power play and then keep them off the board on the penalty kill you’re going to give yourselves a chance to win.”
Forwards T.J. Oshie and Alex Galchenyuk were recently added to the U.S. roster and in the lineup on Tuesday against Slovakia, a 4-1 defeat in a game that would have clinched the top seed in Group H. Oshie, who admitted he is still adjusting to the international game played on the larger ice surface, said it is important for the team to come out and play physical, when possible, on Thursday.
“It’s very important to get a couple of big hits – it gets the guys going on the bench, but not only that, it holds them back a little bit from making some plays that they want to make,” Oshie said.
Sacco, who is making his debut as head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team during the fortnight in Helsinki, spoke about the keys to victory.
“As far as we go, nothing will really change,” Sacco said. “We have to be disciplined and stay out of the box as best as we can. We have to tighten up when we are in our own zone, but it really comes down to controlling territory…we have to spend as much time in their offensive zone and make them defend.”
Sacco said that 19-year-old John Gibson will get his third start in goal for Team USA. The young netminder enters the contest with a 2-0 record and a save percentage of .984, having only allowed one goal over 120 minutes of play in victories against Finland and Germany.
Russia has yet to confirm whether Ilya Bryzgalov or Semyon Valamov, both of whom have started three games thus far, will play between the pipes for Russia.
Team USA is in quest of its first medal at the world championship since 2004, when it attained a bronze in Prague, Czech Republic.
“All it takes is one good game and you make it to Sweden. It’s the most important game of the tournament for us,” Stastny said.
NBC Sports Network will air the game live in the United States beginning at 6 a.m. EDT Thursday.