by Shawn P. Roarke - Courtesy of www.nhl.com
There's no question now who is Team USA's No. 1 goalie in this Olympic tournament.
The Americans had used three different goalies in its first four games, but none really got enough work to take clear-cut possession of the title as go-to guy. That all changed Friday night. Mike Richter
turned in another clutch performance on the big stage, almost single-handedly saving Team USA from a third-period meltdown in an eventual 3-2 victory against Russia in Friday's semifinal at the E Center.
For two periods, Richter appeared the most unlikely candidate to emerge as hero as the Americans dominated, building a 3-0 lead and holding the high-powered Russian offense to just 11 shots after 40 minutes.
That all changed in the blink of an eye. With just 11 seconds gone in the third, Alexei Kovalev raced in to claim a dump-in, beating the U.S. defense. His quick shot from the bottom of the faceoff circle found the short side. The battle, at that point, was joined.
Three minutes later, Vladimir Malakhov -- Richter's teammate for the New York Rangers -- slammed home a juicy rebound to close the gap to one goal. The Americans still had more than 16 minutes to kill to earn the right to play Canada in Sunday's gold medal game.
"It doesn't get much more hairy than that," said defenseman Brian Rafalski of the final 16 minutes.
The Russians had 14 more chances to score after Malakhov's goal -- including six on one power-play opportunity -- but could not solve Richter. Sure, he got help. Russia's Sergei Samsonov hit a post during that power-play and American forward Jeremy Roenick smothered another shot ticketed for an empty net.
But, in the end, Richter made every save he was called upon to preserve the lead, reprising the role of MVP he played for this team in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, the last time the Americans defeated Canada for an international title.
"Whether its the Stanley Cup, the World Cup or the Olympics, I've been lucky to play with him all these years," said American defenseman Brian Leetch, a long-time teammate of Richter with the Rangers. "He was awesome. He was the same as he always is for us in international games."
Richter's big-game legacy helped the Americans keep the faith as wave after wave of Russian attackers blitzed into the offensive zone, firing a fusillade of shots at the harried Richter.
"Richter played great," said American forward John LeClair. "Even when it was 3-2, everyone had a lot of confidence in Ricky. We knew he was going to close the door."
One of the secrets to Richter's success is that he rarely gets caught in the moment. Often, he is able to keep his focus when all hell is breaking out around him.
While most of the American players said the final 10 minutes of the contest seemed to take forever, the cool and collected Richter said he didn't think it took all that long.
"It went by pretty quick and was pretty exciting," he said. "I enjoyed the game, personally, especially the last 10 minutes."
Richter is no 2-0-1 in this tournament, allowing just four goals. He tied the Russians 2-2 in the seeding round with a strong performance. Then blanked Germany, 5-0 in Wednesday's quarterfinal in a Spartan effort. Friday, he again showed his full arsenal of saves against the Russians, finishing with 28 stops.
Richter's performance not only stole the game for the Americans, it secured his place in Sunday's final against Canada. Mike Dunham, who shut out Finland, and Tom Barrasso, who allowed one goal to Belarus, are now merely spectators.
Richter's teammates would want it no other way.
"Mike played great," said Rafalski. "He made some tremendous saves out there.