Americans set for first faceoff with Russia in Sochi
SOCHI, Russia - Paul Martin will take a moment to listen to the echoes of history when the U.S. men's hockey team skates into the Bolshoy Ice Dome today to face Russia and an overflowing crowd of fevered fans.
"We don't know exactly what it's going to be like for a U.S. team in that situation," Martin said, "but we can't wait to find out."
After that moment, the U.S. defenseman will get back to work on slowing down a Russian team with an entire nation willing it to victory in the revival of a classic hockey rivalry.
The latest U.S.-Russia showdown is the undeniable highlight of the preliminary round in Sochi, even though the loser remains firmly in the medal hunt.
Although the sociopolitical aspects of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" and other past matchups have vanished in the 21st century, the next generation of players can't wait to play their own part in this epic story, even if the only prize is a clear path to the quarterfinals.
"They have a good roster," Ilya Kovalchuk said of the Americans. "A lot of the guys have played in Vancouver [in 2010], so they know what it's like to win. It will be a good test for us."
The Americans thrashed Slovakia, 7-1, in their opener, and the Russians survived a few nervous moments in a 5-2 win over Slovenia.
"It's only another team in another country for us," said Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk, who lives in that country during the Detroit Red Wings' season. "USA is definitely not Slovenia. USA is a much tougher opponent, and we will have a good test."
U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick will get a second straight start over 2010 Olympic star Ryan Miller.
"I'm sure it's going to be loud, and a lot of emotion in the arena, so we're looking forward to it," Quick said. "This is the kind of game that you want to play, that you want to be a part of, so it's going to be fun."
The 1,500 meters has always been considered the King of Races in speedskating. At the Sochi Games, today's event throws up plenty of pretenders to the throne, from the United States to Belgium and, of course, the dominant Dutch.
Shani Davis has already squandered one chance at glory in the 1,000 when he failed to become the first male speedskater to win the same Olympic event three straight times. He finished well outside the medals in eighth position. He said that inexplicably he could not find the speed to carry him through the 1,000. The 1,500 is the race where the speed of sprinting meets the endurance of long-distance, and it takes knowledge and confidence to pace yourself for nearly four laps around the oval.
At 31, Davis has the years of experience, but it remains to be seen whether he has found his groove again. He already knows what losing an Olympic 1,500 feels like since he had to settle for silver at the last two games. He will be racing in an older suit after the U.S. team dumped its new high tech suits yesterday following a string of sluggish performances by racers.
So far, the Dutch have been overpowering in speedskating at Sochi, with 12 out of 18 meals and four out of six gold. They are shooting for 20 medals, and are counting on some from the 1,500. Mark Tuitert won the title in 2010 for a surprising gold but has done little since.
Belgium has won a bronze medal in speedskating before, but that was with naturalized Dutchman Bart Veldkamp in the 5,000 at the 1998 Nagano Games. Now Veldkamp is back, as a coach for Bart Swings. The Belgian got close to the medal table when he finished fourth in the 5,000 but the former inline skater fancies his chances in the 1,500.
Meanwhile, after 2 days off, short track speedskating resumes with medals awarded in the women's 1,500 meters and the men's 1,000.
Expect plenty of thrilling pack skating, with the sport's traditional big four countries of Canada, China, South Korea and the United States trying to pile up medals on day three of competition.
China's Zhou Yang is the defending champion in the women's 1,500, although she was seventh at last year's world championships and is ranked second in the world. Her biggest challenger is likely Park Seung-hi, of South Korea, the bronze medalist in Vancouver four years ago.
In the men's 1,000, Russia's Viktor Ahn tries to win a second medal for his adopted country. The former South Korean citizen earned a bronze - Russia's first in the chaotic sport - in the 1,500. Charles Hamelin, of Canada, the 1,500 champion, is back at the shorter distance.