Stanley Cup Playoffs Bring Back Memories of the "Miracle"
NHL executives could not have asked for a better 2009 Stanley Cup playoff run. They got their dream team matchups and their dream player matchups.
The Stanley Cup Finals featured a compelling rematch, a dream second pairing of a veteran, dynasty Red Wings squad against the upstart young-gun Penguins, whom they had taken to the woodshed the year before for a lesson in championship hockey.
Nearly all of the superstars played like superstars, while plenty of less known players took their turns in the spotlight.
The playoffs featured all three of the finalists to win the Hart Trophy, honoring the regular seasons's best player, in the Russian trio of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Pavel Datsyuk.
Evgeni Malkin would go on to become the first Russian player to win the Conn Smythe award as the MVP of the playoffs, while becoming the first player since Mario Lemieux to be the point leader in both the regular season and during the playoffs.
Another Russian player who deserves special mention is Sergei Gonchar, who came back from nearly having his knee taken off by a vicious Ovechkin hit to be a major factor for the Penguins on their surprisingly strong defensive corps.
Watching these three superstars, and a host of other superb Russian players, I had a few flashbacks to 1980. I kept wondering, how did a bunch of U.S. college kids beat these guys?
The miracle of that day got even bigger in my eyes, if that was possible, as watching the magic of these guys increased my appreciation for the magnitude of what was accomplished on that day in 1980.
Obviously, the U.S. squad never played against Ovechkin, Malkin, and Datsyuk, which is probably a good thing for them. But, they played against the Malkins and Ovechkins of their day.
The skill and ability of Russian hockey players is obviously not a new revelation. Two of my favorite non-Penguin hockey players while growing up were snipers Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny, two of the early heralds of what Russian players could do in the NHL.
But, 2009 represents something of a pinnacle, a high watermark moment when three of the most dominating players in the game are Russian superstars.
And that is why it this year's Stanley Cup playoffs that turned my mind back, perhaps for the last time, to 1980.
That Olympic win was one of the greatest achievements in the history of sports. It was a true miracle, something that appeared almost impossible.
Nowadays, we throw around the word "miracle" to describe just about any sports achievement.
But, a miracle implies that the achievement was considered impossible, even beyond comprehension.
Very few sports moments truly qualify for such a powerful word.
But, the 1980 Olympics win was a rare exception.
It shouldn't have happened. Nobody outside of that U.S. locker room truly believed it could happen.
The Soviet Union was loaded with all-world players. They were amateurs in name only.
While they didn't have anyone named Malkin, Ovechkin, or Datsyuk, they had other players who were just as heralded at the time.
Their goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, may very well have been the best goaltender in the world.
Plenty of other players on the team would have starred on any NHL team of that era, including Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Krutov, and Sergei Makarov.
While some of these players eventually did go on to play in the NHL, it wasn't until they were long past their playing primes.
The Soviets were a true Goliath in hockey at that time. Their club teams were better than most NHL teams and their national team had walloped the NHL All-Stars 6-0 the year prior.
The U.S. was thought to be a 15-pound hockey weakling, not even registering on the radar screen just yet, despite the obvious strides the nation was making in its hockey programs.
Next to zero U.S. players were yet starring in an NHL that was almost completely dominated by Canadian players.
That isn't to say that the U.S. players on that Olympic squad were not highly regarded. They were the best amateur players in the country, and several would later go on to have excellent NHL careers.
Herb Brooks had plenty of talent at his fingertips to mold into the cohesive and dynamic unit that would eventually shock the world.
But, nobody thought they had a prayer of challenging the mighty Soviet lords of the ice.
When the two teams met in an exhibition match earlier that year, the Soviets squeaked by the American squad by a mere seven goals in a 10-3 blowout, a score that could have been a whole lot worse.
En route to that historic Olympics matchup, the U.S. team had to work for just about every win, while the Soviets mostly won just by showing up.
They were the intimidators. Everyone knew they were the best. It was unquestioned.
The gold medal was theirs. Everyone else was playing for the silver.
The U.S. squad only got through their opening round game against Sweden with a tie thanks to a goal they scored when Jim Craig went to the bench for an extra attacker during the game's final minute.
Meanwhile, the Soviets beat Japan, the Netherlands, and Poland in the preliminary rounds by a combined score of 41-5.
If the two teams had met 20 times, the Soviet squad probably would have won 19 of those games. But, on the day they met in the Olympics, the Soviets rolled snake eyes.
The game was miraculous, not just for the final result, but also in how it unfolded. The U.S. squad fell behind 1-0, and then 2-1. It looked like the Soviets would blow it open at any moment, as they literally pelted Jim Craig with a storm of pucks.
The Soviets were well on their way to taking that lead into the locker room.
Literally as the final second remained on the clock, the U.S. squad found the equalizer, with only three Russian players still on the ice.
The team had already cashed it in and headed to the locker room when Mark Johnson pushed the rebound into the net.
The fact that the game was tied after the first period was such a shock to the Soviet coach that Viktor Tikhonov pulled the best goalie in the world from the net, replacing him with Vladimir Myshkin.
The move was almost certainly a mistake, sending a signal of doubt to the superior Soviet squad.
The U.S. would fall behind again for a third time, 3-2, when Aleksander Maltev scored the only goal of the second period.
But, the U.S. would rebound in the third period when Mark Johnson notched his second goal to tie it. Mike Eruzione, the team captain, scored the game winner.
The Soviet coach was so befuddled in the game's final minutes that he didn't pull his goalie, being caught completely flat-footed while facing a situation that had never even crossed the darkest recesses of his mind as a possibility.
It simply was not supposed to happen. It couldn't happen. It was inconceivable.
The U.S. squad was dominated throughout all 60 minutes of the game. They were outshot 39-16. But, Jim Craig put together one of the greatest games ever played by a goalie.
And, somehow, by some miracle, the U.S. squad won. A bunch of college players thrown together a few months before beat arguably the best hockey team in the world.
The significance of that game was obviously heightened by the political context in which it was played.
It was also one of the rare cases when the background story and the actual drama of the game lined up so perfectly. It also came at a time of great national doubt.
On that day in 1980, the Soviet Olympic hockey team was Goliath, a manifestation of the enemy in a geopolitical struggle of competing superpowers.
We've come a long way since that day.
The Russian stars of the NHL are now our heroes, as we marvel at their incredible skills, determination, and sportsmanship.
They are the miracle workers with what they can do with the puck while flying around the hockey rink with reckless abandon.
They are part of the fabric of the U.S. cities in which they play, with Malkin being both a Russian superstar and an adopted Pittsburgher.
Detroit Red Wings fans show near reverence for favorite adopted son Datsyuk, while Washington fans flood the message boards with "Ovechkin is better than Crosby" lunacy.
Then again, who knows? If I was a Capitals' fans, I might suffer from the same dementia.
One thing that we all have in common is the shared belief that it is our privilege to see these guys play.
Pass me the Vodka, please.
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