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US, Russia set for big faceoff on Sochi ice

Much has changed since 1980; now it’s the Americans who are favored

There is enormous pressure on the Russian men's hockey team to win gold on home ice in Sochi, but they weren’t impressive in an opening win over Slovenia. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Mark Blinch/Reuters

There is enormous pressure on the Russian men's hockey team to win gold on home ice in Sochi, but they weren’t impressive in an opening win over Slovenia.

SOCHI, Russia — The Boys of Winter are a documentary now — a horror flick, as the Russians view it. Their victory over the Big Red Machine in Lake Placid was the greatest moment in American hockey history (with proper respect to what the 1960 team achieved in Squaw Valley) and perhaps the last positive moment that brought the country together.

None of the 25 American hockey players at these Winter Olympics was born when Mike Eruzione scored on The Shot Heard ’Round The World in 1980 and when he beckoned his band of brothers to join him atop the podium.

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“I think the Miracle obviously is a great accomplishment for the US, but it was 34 years ago and we’re still living on something that happened 34 years ago,” observed US forward David Backes.

It’s a decidedly different world now, both on the ice and beyond. The Soviet Union shattered into 15 pieces more than two decades ago. Vyacheslav Fetisov has both the Order of Lenin and the Stanley Cup on his résumé. Viktor Tikhonov, whose grandfather was behind the USSR bench in 1980 and who plays for the Russian varsity, holds an American passport and grew up in California and Kentucky. He didn’t set foot in Russia until he was 15.

And the Americans, who needed a miracle to manage it in the Adirondacks, now beat the Russians as often as not. When these Cold War rivals face each other inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome Saturday in Stalin’s old summer getaway, the US will be favored.

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The Yanks, who were an overtime goal away from grabbing the gold medal from Canada in Vancouver four years ago, crushed the Russians, 8-3, in the quarterfinals at last year’s World Championships and went on to win the bronze medal with what amounted to a “B” team while Russia finished sixth.

In Thursday’s opening matches, the US blitzed Slovakia, 7-1, scoring six goals in the second period of what had shaped up as a trap game, while the Russians had to work to get past Slovenia after taking their foot off the gas. “A serious team should not do such things,” declared defenseman Anton Belov.

There is enormous pressure on the Russians after their no-show in 2010, when they lost to the Slovaks and were hammered, 7-3, by the Canadians in the quarterfinals.

“The competition in Vancouver was a catastrophe,” former captain Boris Mikhailov remarked last week. “Some fought bravely while others couldn’t do anything, to say the least.”

President Vladimir Putin, who’d be happy to skate a shift if it would help the Motherland, has made it clear that the standard here, as it was for decades, is gold.

“Can you imagine what it would have been like had Canada not won in Vancouver?” mused Fetisov, the former Soviet captain who was in the forefront of the migration of his countrymen to the NHL.

“If Russia loses, will everyone be sent to Siberia? Probably not. Of course the players understand the importance of the game and everyone wants to see the Russians win the final game.”

There’s no such national pressure on the Americans. If the US doesn’t make the podium, they won’t be mourning in Mississippi. The expectations on the players primarily are their own, heightened by their agonizing near-miss last time.

“There’s definitely that hunger, whether we played the gold game last time or not,” said forward Zach Parise, one of 13 players returning from the 2010 squad. “Coming so close in Vancouver was tough. Finishing second in Vancouver doesn’t guarantee us anything this time, and a lot of things have to go right.”

While the Yanks can make the podium without beating the Russians, as they did in 1972 despite losing badly to them in Sapporo, they understand that their countrymen would be far more fulfilled if they did. The 1960 triumph made enduring heroes of the Clearys and the Christians, of goalie Jack McCartan and of captain Jack Kirrane, the Brookline firefighter who took unpaid time off the truck to lead them all to gold.

That was the last time the US would beat the Soviets in global play until Lake Placid, as it lost the next 18 meetings, usually by five or more goals. Three years after Squaw Valley, the Americans finished dead last in the World Championships in Stockholm, losing, 9-0 to the Russians, 10-1 to the Czechs, 10-4 to the Canadians, 11-3 to the Finns, and 17-2 to the Swedes.

“Christ!” President Kennedy complained to an old friend on the phone. “Who are we sending over there? Girls?”

The Yanks took their lumps during the 1960s but eventually there were brighter days at Olympus. Their Sapporo silver was their first medal on foreign ice since 1956. But the Big Red Machine kept belting them, before and after Lake Placid. Everything changed, though, as soon as the USSR came unglued in 1991 and the socialist sports system fell apart and its top players decamped to North America.

The Americans beat the Russians, 3-1, in the 1994 quarterfinals for their first victory over them at a World Championship, then did it again in overtime for the 1996 bronze medal. Since Russia has been competing on its own, the US is a break-even 5-5-1 in the tournament and 1-1-1 at the Games, including a victory in the 2002 semis at Salt Lake City, with 1980 coach Herb Brooks again behind the bench.

The country that was at the heart of the Soviet Union has yet to win Olympic gold under its own name and has missed the last two podiums. Falling short yet again here on the final day of the Games would be unthinkable.

“There is no axe lifted above our heads like it is with the men’s team,” said women’s defenseman Alexandra Kapustina. “I sympathize with them.”

The Americans, like their northern neighbors, have prospered since the addition of NHL players, winning silvers at two of the last three Games. They’ve learned how to assemble teams of role players who are comfortable with the international game.

Still, their shredding of the Slovaks surprised even themselves.

“You never really expect to beat a team like that 7-1,” said Parise. “You never do it in a tournament like this.”

The Soviets did it all the time, but those teams and that country aren’t coming back. Neither are the Boys of Winter, the last amateur US team to win a gold medal. This one is composed of wealthy professionals who didn’t practice together until they arrived here.

Not that winning the tournament would mean any less to them.

“It would be a miracle to us,” said forward Blake Wheeler. “None of us has a gold medal and it would mean so much to all of us.”

Just making the podium would make history. No US hockey team has done it at an overseas Games since 1972, and the Americans haven’t medaled at consecutive Olympics since 1960. A gold would make it a satisfying three-fer and a satisfying sequel to the Miracle.

“As great as it was and as awesome an accomplishment, I think the guys here would like to write our own chapter,” said Backes, “and we can talk about ’80 and ’14.”

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jpowizglobe
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