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U.S. win before 1980 'Miracle' was gravy

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
Forward Dave Christian, who went on to play more than 1,000 NHL games after the 1980 Olympics, set up the final Team USA goal in round-robin play.
Game 1 Review: USA 2, Sweden 2

Game 2 Review: USA 7, Czechoslovakia 3
Game 3 Review: USA 5, Norway 1
Game 4 Review: USA 7, Romania 2
Exclusive Craig Patrick Interview

By Dan David,

At the 2010 Olympics at Vancouver, the final game of round-robin play was crucial for almost every team -- as it would determine their placement in the medal round.

Thirty years ago, at the Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y., the final game of round-robin play didn't even matter for the U.S. "Miracle on Ice" team. That's because Team USA had already clinched its medal-round berth before the opening faceoff of its final Blue Division game against West Germany on the night of Feb. 20, 1980.

The matchup with West Germany would have been important had Sweden lost to Czechoslovakia in another Blue Division game earlier that Wednesday. But when Sweden won its game 4-2, Team USA was assured that it would finish in the Blue Division's top two, even if the 4-0-1 Americans lost their game against West Germany.

In fact, the only real question mark for the Americans going into the game against West Germans was whether they could win the game by six or more goals. If they could do that, they would move ahead of Sweden into first place in the division by virtue of having a better goal differential. The Swedes were plus-19 in going 5-0-1. The Americans were plus-13 entering their division finale.

Unless Team USA could win by more than six goals, it was clear that they were going to face the Soviets to start the medal round. That had to be weighing heavily on the players' minds.

West Germany was hardly one of the tougher teams in the tournament, and the Germans were playing without their finest player, the legendary Erich Kuhnhackl, who missed the Olympics that year. The German squad was made up almost entirely of German league players, including 21-year-old center Gerd Truntschka, who had been drafted by St. Louis Blues with a 12th-round pick in 1978. No player on the West German squad would ever reach the NHL, however.

With so little on the line, Team USA might not have felt very motivated as they looked ahead to the Soviet powerhouse. They knew they had already shocked the hockey world just by getting to the final four, and having West Germany in their way was more of an inconvenience than anything else.

The lack of motivation showed in the first, as the West Germans took a stunning 2-0 lead after 20 minutes, essentially erasing any hope of a U.S. victory by six or more goals.

Defenseman Horst-Peter Kretschmer go the first of the two goals for the Germans when he burned U.S. goalie Jim Craig on a 65-foot slap shot from the neutral zone. It was one of the few bad goals Craig had given up in the Olympics. He gave up another long goal shortly after that one when, with time running out in the period, 24-year-old defenseman Udo Kiessling scored from the right point after the Germans won a faceoff in the U.S. zone.

Prior to the Olympics, Craig had told himself he could not allow more than three goals in any game if the Americans were going to go unbeaten. Through one period on Feb. 20, 1980, he had allowed two.

It didn't take long for his U.S. teammates to reassure Craig that they had his back. They came out hitting, and went on to play their most physical 40 minutes of the tournament. In the second period, future Rangers forward Rob McClanahan scored on a breakaway, and Neal Broten followed up with a goal from the slot that beat Germany's Bernhard Englbrecht for a 2-2 tie.

In the third period, McClanahan notched the winner on his second goal of the game, and Phil Verchota deflected home a Dave Christian slapper to close out the scoring at 4-2.

Herb Brooks' underdogs, the youngest squad in the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament and the world's seventh-ranked team, had managed to go unbeaten through Blue Division play. As they celebrated, the Americans knew the toughest test lay ahead -- as they would go up against the same Soviet players who had humiliated them earlier in the month in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden.

There was some hope this time, however. Canada, a team that didn't even make the medal round, had led the Soviets 3-1 at one point in a 6-4 loss earlier on Wednesday. Even West German coach Hans Rampf suggested the Americans might be able to skate with the four-time defending gold medalists.

Rampf, who was upset that more penalties had not been called against Team USA in West Germany's loss to the Americans, said that the best hope for Team USA against the Soviets would be lenient officiating.

"If they get penalties against the Russians, they won't have a chance," said Ramp. "They'll have to stay on the ice and not in the penalty box.

Nobody, including Rampf, could have imagined that the Americans were less than 48 hours away from destiny.
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