WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah - To heck with history, politics and miracles. For the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team, this one was about survival.
After jumping out to a three-goal lead yesterday against Russia in the semifinals, the United States did all it could to simply hang on.
Team USA fought and clawed through a hectic third period, proving it had enough character to take a punch and stay standing, then hanging on for an emotional 3-2 victory.
The Americans will take on Canada tomorrow in the gold-medal game and are assured of winning their first Olympic medal in men's hockey in 22 years.
"This is the best game I've ever been involved in," said U.S. forward Jeremy Roenick. "Sunday will be a final for the ages. A lot of people didn't think we could make it this far. They thought maybe we had the talent but questioned our character and our unity as a team. I think we've proven every one of them wrong after tonight."
For Russia, the country's 2002 Olympic frustration only continued. Despite playing horrendous defensive hockey for the first two periods, only staying in the game thanks to some outstanding play by goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, the Russians launched a furious comeback and nearly rallied from a three-goal deficit.
But in the end it fell short, and many Russian players and coaches left the E Center Ice Arena repeating the country's claim that a bias exists against them in these games.
"There's not much you can do about it now," said Russian coach Slava Fetisov. "An agreement has been signed that is designed to have a final between Canada and the U.S. You have this final. You have NHL referees out there who live in this country. They know the players. In crucial situations, it's human nature, and I know they're not going call a penalty [on the U.S.]."
The United States appeared to be on cruise control coming into the third period after outshooting Russia, 38-11. The Americans got goals from Bill Guerin, Scott Young and Phil Housley, and the game had all the makings of a runaway. But things tightened up quickly when Alexei Kovalev and Vladimir Malakhov got two shots past U.S. goalie Mike Richter.
"You know when you're playing Russia, they're not going to roll over and die for you," Richter said. "They had nothing to lose at that point, so we knew they were going to come out hard."
Still, the United States couldn't do much to stop the onslaught once it started. When Brett Hull was called for hooking at 48:19, giving the Russians a one-man advantage for two awfully long minutes, it looked like the game was headed for a 3-3 tie.
What followed, however, was a case study in guts and determination. For 1:45, the Russians held the puck in the zone, blasting shot after shot at Richter. At one point, Sergei Samsonov even managed to get the puck between Richter and the goal, only to see it clip off the post before Roenick cleared it. When the United States finally killed the penalty, it was clear the Americans had passed their biggest test of the tournament.
"That right there was an onslaught of some of the best talent in the world at the highest pace possible," Roenick said. "My heart was in my stomach the entire time. When they had the open net and I slid in front of that puck, I almost threw up right on the ice."
Roenick held on, and so did his teammates, thanks to Richter, who simply refused to let his team lose. Even when the Russians pulled Khabibulin (who made 46 saves) for one final rush, it wasn't enough to get a clean shot off, thanks to the defensive skills of Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch and Mike Modano.
After the game, several Russian players complained about calls to referees Bill McCreary, Antti Juhani Haemaelaeinen and Jean Morin. Danny Markov drew a one-game misconduct for verbally assaulting McCreary, and he will be suspended for the bronze-medal game against Belarus.
"I think the refereeing all in all was pretty fair," Khabibulin said. "We should not try to look for some fault with the refereeing. As far as the first and second periods were concerned, we did not do such a great job. For the third period, we got better, but it was too late."
An American men's hockey team has still never lost on home soil in Olympic play (21-0-2), but Canada, which defeated Belarus, 7-1, in the other semifinal, will put that 70-year streak to the ultimate test tomorrow.
"For everybody in North America, this is what they wanted to see: U.S. against Canada," Chelios said.
United States 1 2 0 - 3
Russia 0 0 2 - 2
First period - 1, U.S., B. Guerin, 15:56 (pp). Penalties - B. Guerin, U.S. (roughing), 7:42; A. Nikolishin, Russia (tripping), 14:50. Second period - 2, U.S., S. Young (P. Housley, B. Leetch), 7:31 (pp). 3, U.S., P. Housley (T. Amonte), 17:39 (pp). Penalties - M. Afinogenov, Russia (interference), 0:59; D. Kasparaitis, Russia (roughing), 6:32; A. Miller, U.S. (holding the stick), 13:23; A. Zhamnov, Russia (slashing), 16:09. Third period - 4, Russia, A. Kovalev (D. Markov, O. Tverdovsky), 0:11. 5, Russia, V. Malakhov, 3:21. Penalties - B. Hull, U.S. (hooking), 8:19; A. Nikolishin, Russia (hooking), 13:55; P. Bure, Russia (roughing), 19:59; C. Chelios, U.S. (cross-checking), 19:59. Shots on goal - Russia 4-7-19-30. U.S. 20-18-11-49. Goalies - Russia, Nikolai Khabibulin (49-46). U.S., Mike Richter (30-28). Referees- Antti Juhani Haemaelaeinen; Bill McCreary; Jean Morin. A - 8,599