SOCHI, Russia – Perspective can be a very powerful motivator.
When asked about playing in a hostile environment, David Backes thought back to meeting members of the U.S. Armed Forces during a summer orientation camp for the U.S. Men’s Olympic Team.
He remembered hearing stories of heroism and sacrifice and valor of troops facing seemingly insurmountable odds in hostile conditions. These troops, he was told, had one thing working in their favor. They had their brothers in arms to count on.
Though it pales in comparison, Backes can take comfort in knowing that there are 24 other players in the U.S. locker room who will have his back, as he will have theirs, when they face off against Russia in front of an energized home crowd packed to the rafters inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome Saturday night for this preliminary round game.
“I’ve talked to a lot of guys who have served in the armed forces guys who have been in hostile situations,” said Backes. “We’re in a loud building with a lot of people who want us to lose.”
There aren’t many people who give the U.S. much of a chance, even after an impressive 7-1 victory against Slovakia in the opener. The Russians, with all their skill and the added motivation of playing on home ice and in front of their countrymen as they look to improve on their sixth-place finish in Vancouver, are certainly the favorites this time around. But the Americans have been in the underdog role before and it seems to suit them well.
“We’ve heard some rumblings that Saturday night is going to be a big game, and we heard the place is going to be on fire,” said Patrick Kane, who is no stranger to playing in big games as a member of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
“I’m sure there won’t be too many people rooting for us in that building. But it’s kind of fun to play in that hostile environment and that situation.”
Head coach Dan Bylsma knows that his team will be ready for what promises to be an electric atmosphere and an energized Russian squad that features Evengi Malkin, who plays for him with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I’ve seen Evengi Malkin do things that I don’t know what he’s going to do next or how he does it,” said Bylsma, who kept his scouting report of his Russian superstar close to the vest.
“To have a game plan or to tell someone what to expect, you might have to expect the unexpected against a player of that ilk. We may have a little more information on how to get to Evengi Malkin but I’m not sure it’s going to be the full story.”
Bylsma will once again turn to Jonathan Quick in goal. The Los Angeles Kings netminder was solid while seldom tested against Slovakia.
“I thought he played real well in that game and he’ll play well in the next game,” Bylsma said of Quick’s 22-save effort.
“There were periods of inactivity in that game and he had to stay sharp and stay focused and it was followed by two or three big saves that he had to make.”
There probably won’t be too many periods of inactivity against the Russians. Packed with four lines of firepower, led by NHL superstars like Malkin, Alex Ovechin and Pavel Datsuyk. They also have nine players from the Kontinental Hockey League who are looking to show the world that they too can play at the highest level.
One thing that Bylsma doesn’t want to do is get into a track meet with the Russians. He knows that trying to match the Russian’s skills could be a recipe for disaster. While the Americans may have the speed and skill to match up with any team, the Russians have a way of making teams pay if they try to run and gun with them.
“We don’t match their skill and if we try to we won’t win,” Bylsma said. “But we can be hard to play against. We can be an abrasive team and that’s going to go square, nose to nose with some of the best skill in the world tomorrow.”
Backes said they have to be physical and play a North American style of hockey to slow down the Russian attack.
“We still play a grinding style of hockey, but now there’s a high skill element to make pretty plays after you’ve mucked and grinded and found ways to win those battles,” he said. “That’s a great combination to have. We showed it in first game and we’re going to need it in game two.”
Heading into the game, a good deal of the focus has been on what happened 34 years ago in Lake Placid. But while every member of this team has grown up with the “Miracle on Ice,” these are different players competing in a different time. This group of players is looking to pen their own story, one that they hope will be told to future generations of American hockey players.
“I think the Miracle obviously is a great accomplishment for the U.S. , but it was 34 years ago,” Backes said. “The guys here would like to write our own chapter so we can talk about 1980 and 2014.”