Team USA takes first difficult step toward gold

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- For two periods, you could've called it the "Massacre on Ice."

Then, in the final period, it almost got miraculous.

In the end, though, Team USA celebrated the 22nd anniversary of the nation's greatest hockey victory (over the Soviet Union in 1980) with a 3-2 victory against Russia on Friday at a jammed E Center. The victory propelled the Americans into Sunday's gold medal final (3 p.m. ET) against Canada, which defeated Belarus 7-1 in Friday's other semifinal.

Team USA seemed to have things well in hand after 40 minutes. They went to the locker room with a 3-0 lead (on goals by Bill Guerin, Scott Young and Phil Housley) and held an amazing 38-11 shot advantage.

"We played really great for two periods," USA captain Chris Chelios said. "We got a lot of shots at (Nikolai) Khabibulin and really played well defensively."

Embarrassed by their uninspired performance in the first two periods, Russia coach Slava Fetisov pleaded with his players to give "anything they had left" during the second intermission.

Fetisov did what he could by shuffling lines, putting right wing Alexei Kovalev on a line with center Sergei Fedorov and forward Sergei Samsonov to start the period. The move paid quick dividends as Fedorov beat defenseman Gary Suter on a dump-in to the left of goalie Mike Richter. Kovalev slid a backhand between Richter's legs with just 11 seconds gone in the third period.

Suddenly, the rout was off.

"It was a tough play for Suter because he had his back to the play," said Richter, who stopped 28 shots -- including 17 of 19 in the final period -- to improve his 2002 Olympic mark to 2-0-1. "Kovalev saw the puck coming off the boards and made a good play."

Just 3:10 later, Russian defenseman Vladimir Malakhov blistered a slap shot from the center point that caromed off Housley and past Richter, cutting the lead to 3-2.

At that point, USA coach Herb Brooks figured his troops needed a timeout.

"I just wanted to remind everybody to get back to playing our game," Brooks said. "We have a word association thing we use on the bench to trigger a certain positive response. In that situation, you don't want to say too much."

After the timeout, the Russians kept coming.

At the 6:07 mark, Richter stopped a snap shot from Russian defenseman Danny Markov. At 7:44, Richter denied a great chance by Pavel Bure from the left wing circle. Then, 35 seconds later, American right wing Brett Hull received a two-minute penalty for hooking Alexei Yashin.

During the power play, the Russians turned the heat a little higher. After a scramble in the slot, Samsonov found the puck on his stick. He fired, but Richter made the stop. The loose puck came back to Samsonov, who was standing just to Richter's left. He fired again, hitting the right post. The puck skidded across the crease, where the slippery Samsonov got one more crack at the net. This time, though, with Richter out of position, center Jeremy Roenick came sliding to the rescue, blocking Samsonov's game-tying attempt.

"When I fell on top of that puck, I almost threw up," a relieved Roenick said after the game.

On the play, several Russian players thought Samsonov's second shot went in the net. Fetisov screamed at referee Bill McCreary to call up to the video replay booth. But no review was forthcoming.

"I was trying to waste some time, so they could look at it," said Fetisov, who questioned several of the calls and no-calls by McCreary after the game. "But, they review every controversial play upstairs and they did not ring the bell, so I guess it was no goal."

Undeterred by their bad luck, the Russians kept crashing the net. At the 12:30 mark, Richter stopped Fedorov from the slot.

Even after Russian center Andrei Nikolishin drew a penalty for hooking Team USA center Mike Modano at 13:55, they kept charging, getting a 2-on-1 shorthanded chance from Larionov, which was turned aside by Richter.

In the final moments, the Americans began to regain their composure. At 16:01, forward Adam Deadmarsh had a chance to ice the game but was stopped from pointblank range by Khabibulin.

Team Russia forced two faceoffs deep in the Americans' end in the final 12 seconds but couldn't get a clear shot to the net.

Afterward, Richter joked about the near collapse.

"You gotta make those games tight to make everybody stay in the building," Richter said.

"But, you knew they weren't just gonna roll over and die," he added. "We came out a little flat in the third period and they took advantage of it. But, we're a good enough team to hold a lead and we did."

Now, the Americans get a chance to win their first ice hockey gold medal since 1980, when they face the very familiar Canadians, who'll be looking for their first hockey gold since 1952.

"I don't think there'll be one person on the street anywhere in Canada on Sunday afternoon," Roenick joked.

Richter, who'll face Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur in Sunday's final, predicts a thrilling game.

"It should be pretty dramatic," Richter said. "We've both worked so hard to be here. It should be a terrific sixty minutes of hockey."

And, remember, it'll be played on the 22nd anniversary of the American's gold medal win over Finland. Clearly, Team USA is hoping to make it a very happy anniversary.

E.J. Hradek writes for ESPN The Magazine.