Team USA’s 4-1 win over Finland was impressive. It’s even more impressive when you consider the Americans were taking on a previously unbeaten Finland team in front of their fans at Hartwall Arena.
While America’s win over the host team was dramatic, there is still a lot of hockey to play and more on the line in the coming week. Team USA’s finest World Championship moment also came as they shocked a host.
The 2004 World Championship were held in Prague and Ostrava. The Americans came to the Czech Republic after a difficult 2003 World Championship where they faced relegation and lost in a shocking opening game to newly promoted Denmark.
But in 2004 Team USA won two and tied another of its three games in the Preliminary Round, setting up a Qualifying Round showdown against Russia.
Russia was loaded with talent: Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Yashin and Maxim Afinogenov. The Americans, while talented, did not match up to the star power Russia had in the lineup.
After being down 2-1 over two periods, the Americans got goals from Ryan Malone and a shorthanded game winner from Chris Drury to beat Russia 3-2.
This was followed by a loss to Sweden and a rout of Denmark, setting up the showdown with the Czech Republic.
The build up to the game and the game itself was memorable at least to this reporter. I was scheduled to leave Prague the morning after the game and even though I was technically “off the clock” wanted to write the game story for the semi-final.
Sazka Arena was downright electric. Czech fans were excited with the prospect of their team now in the playoff round. Talk of the Czech returning to the gold medal game after last winning it in 2001 was all around. But the Americans had other thoughts in mind.
After a scoreless first period, the Czechs staked a 2-0 lead on goals by Martin Skoula and Jaromir Jagr. Those goals came three minutes apart and further chiseled the expected narrative that the Czechs were aiming for a medal.
One observation in watching the Americans prepare in Ostrava and then in Prague was how close they were as a team. There was genuine camaraderie among the team and real sense of respect and friendship. These aren’t things to be taken lightly in tournaments such as the World Championships. The intangibles matter as much, if not more, as the tournament progresses.
Richard Park got the Americans on the board in the second cutting the lead 2-1, setting up the third period. Erik Westrum’s goal between the pads of Tomas Vokoun made it 2-2. The momentum shifted and the Americans had scratched their way back into the game.
After overtime, the shootout was the final frontier. Heading into the fifth round of the shootout neither team was able to score. Andy Roach stood at center ice for the Americans with a chance to score.
If there was any question why a then little known defenceman was taking the shot, there was none for the America brain trust. Head coach Peter Laviolette was told by his Assistant Coach Greg Poss that Roach, who played in the German League and for Team USA in the Deutschland Cup that year, was very good in shootouts and had an “unbelievable” move.
Roach scored and Jiri Dopita, then considered the best player not in the NHL, missed to propel the Americans to an incredible win, thanks to an incredible comeback.
The win over the Czech Republic sent the Americans to the semi-finals where they lost to Sweden 3-2. Still, the Americans qualified for the bronze medal game where they defeated Slovakia in a shootout for their first medal since 1996.