SOCHI, March 11 (R-Sport) – Russia’s underdog sledge hockey team stunned the United States in a 2-1 win at the Sochi Paralympics on Tuesday amid sporting and political tension between the two countries.
The result ensures Russia qualifies for the semifinals as group winner in its first Paralympics and will play Norway, while the U.S., the 2010 gold medalist, faces a tough semifinal against Group A winner Canada.
"We played today like a living organism," said Russian goaltender Vladimir Kamantsev, who stopped 22 of 23 shots in acrobatic style. "It's a super victory and now there's a feeling of pleasure that we beat the Americans, especially on our soil."
"We aren't as used to playing as our opponent, but we've got more desire to win and team spirit anyway."
The game came a month after the American Olympic team beat Russia 3-2 in a controversial game in which a Russian goal was disallowed, sparking claims of a conspiracy among senior political figures in the Sochi host nation. It also comes as Russia and the U.S. square off over the future of the Crimean peninsula, a region of Ukraine.
"We just weren't putting away chances. Sometimes it doesn't just go your way. We just ran out of time, it wasn't a case of lack of focus," U.S. forward Josh Pauls, 21, said.
He suggested that Russia's victory could help the sport to grow in a country that barely had a sledge hockey program at the time of the last Winter Paralympics in Vancouver four years ago. “It’s big for the sport to see how far they’ve come in everything," Pauls said.
The underdog nature of Russia's victory invited comparisons to the U.S. "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union, then reigning gold medalist, at the 1980 Olympics.
“I don’t know if I’d go that far," U.S. coach Jeff Sauer told R-Sport. "The bottom line is they haven’t won a gold medal yet and we still have a chance to win a gold medal. From our standpoint, that’s what our goal is.”
The Russians seemed overawed at the start of Tuesday’s game, at one stage going 10-0 down on shots, making the near-capacity crowd at the Shayba Arena restless.
That all changed late in the first period when poor U.S. discipline led to two U.S. penalties and gave the Russians a five-on-three advantage.
As the Americans tried to keep the puck against the boards, that left space in front of goal for Ilya Volkov, who received a pass from Dmitry Lisov and buried it in the top-left corner.
Another uncharacteristic U.S. stumble led to Russia’s second goal, less than two minutes into the second period. Konstantin Shikhov’s shot on the breakaway bounced off goaltender Steve Cash’s arm and was accidentally knocked into the net by the American’s teammate Brody Roybal, at 15 the youngest player in the Paralympic hockey tournament.
The spark of a U.S. fightback was lit five minutes into the third when Adam Page scored off a rebound amid an onslaught on the Russian net as the home crowd roared their heroes on.
In an echo of the disallowed Russian goal against the U.S. at the Olympics, the Americans were left protesting when Taylor Chace put the puck in the net, only to be denied because the whistle had gone for an earlier infringement.
Earlier in the day, Italy beat South Korea 2-1 to end the medal hopes of the Koreans, who beat Russia 3-2 on a shootout earlier in the tournament. Norway, Russia’s likely semifinal opponent, then defeated Sweden 2-0.
Canada downed the Czech Republic 1-0 on a goal from Greg Westlake in a result that ensured Norway qualified from second in Group A rather than the Czechs.