Saturday’s game between the United States and Russia in pool play at the Sochi Olympics may not have the pizzazz of old rivalry games between Team USA and the Soviet Union, but that doesn’t mean that the players on both sides aren’t taking the game seriously.
“We don’t refer to them as the big, bad Russians, because we know a lot of them and play with a lot of them (in the NHL),” Zach Parise told the media this week. “There just isn’t the political rivalry that there was back then. But it’s still special when you see the US-Russia matchup.”
Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk didn’t put any qualifiers on his thoughts on the rivalry. “Everyone is expecting only one thing from us, and we won’t have the right to make an error,” he said.
The Russians have a lot more than just one win in pool play to worry about for this game. Their head coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, was a defenseman on the infamous Soviet team that lost to Team USA 4-3 in the “Miracle on Ice” game. Vladislav Tretiak, who was the goalie pulled in the game after he gave up two first period goals, is currently the president of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation.
Both of those men have bad tastes in their mouths from that defeat, which ultimately led to a gold medal for the US and the end of decades of dominance for the Soviets, and both would like nothing more than to knock off Team USA on Saturday and put themselves in prime position to get a bye into the quarterfinals.
Perhaps more than having Tretiak and Bilyaletdinov watching over their every move, the Russian team also has the pressure of trying to defend their home ice when they battle the Americans on Saturday. The fans who have attended the country’s sporting exploits so far in these Olympics have been vocal in their support for the home side, and the atmosphere at the rink for the game Saturday should be nothing short of electric.
The Russians are experiencing some difficulties of their own on the ice too. They took a while to put away lowly Slovenia in their first game of these Olympics on Thursday, and even though Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk all notched goals, they are still having to deal with an injury to Pavel Datsyuk, who not only is one of their most talented forwards on offense but is also arguably the best defensive player on the team.
To make matters worse, the Americans are coming off a game against Slovakia that saw them score six second periods goals en route to a 7-1 win. Paul Stastny paced the effort with two goals, and the US got some stellar contributions from several of their youngest players, including John Carlson, Ryan McDonough, and Kevin Shattenkirk.
Facing off against a much better defense than they faced in the Slovenia game, and facing an offense that has some pretty serious firepower of its own, the Russians face a tough slog as they look to make an important statement about their gold medal aspirations in this game. Can they help soothe the 34-year old wounds of their head coach and team president, or will they be left wondering what might have been after facing a US team loaded with talent and ready to prove doubters of their own wrong?