The front-running U.S. Men’s hockey team, riding high after a mostly dominant, sometimes glorious, undefeated opening round, will face elimination for the first time today, the existential threat coming in the form of a creaky but crafty Czech Republic squad.
The Czechs, who nearly blew a four-goal lead on their way to securing a 5-3 decision against their former compatriots from Slovakia Tuesday, enter this quarterfinal match-up with the tournament’s preeminent graybeard, 42-year-old winger Jaromir Jagr girding for his fifth game in eight days. The U.S. team, meanwhile, hasn’t played since Sunday, when they skated the Slovenians out of the Bolshoy Ice Dome, clinching a bye into the second knockout round.
Here are some other numbers to bear in mind ahead of Wednesday’s 12 p.m. ET face-off:
9:23 - That’s the amount of time “T.J. Sochi” — known to teammates, coaches, and year-round fans as T.J. Oshie, fourth-line center and regulation time afterthought — spent on the ice before he converted on the first of his seven shootout attempts. Only two of the 13 American forwards dressed for the Russian game played less. In other words, if you’re out to learn more about Oshie, better to click this link than watch this game.
42 - The Czech team has two players, Jagr and Petr Nedved, both 42 years old, who made their NHL debuts before three of the US team’s young stars were born. Cam Fowler, the bright young defenseman who scored the Americans’ first goal against the Russians Friday, made his debut in the maternity ward about six months after Jagr first lifted the Stanley Cup. The Czech team has an average age of 30.8, the oldest in the tournament.
0 - …is the number of current American players alive the last time the U.S. was awarded Olympic hockey gold, at the end of a particularly memorable 1980 tournament. By contrast, every single member of this Czech team was, at the very least, playing youth hockey when their national team triumphed at the 1998 Nagano games. Jagr played in the gold medal game that year, a 1-0 win over Russia.
(If you absolutely must find some tie to the “Miracle On Ice” to get the juices flowing, please note that while American defenseman Ryan Suter was not yet born when the U.S. beat the Soviet Union, 4-3, in Lake Placid, N.Y. on Feb. 22, 1980, his father, Bob, played in the game. Like his son does now, Bob Suter wore number 20 and played defense.)
60 - The number of minutes defenseman Ladislav Smid, currently in the first year of a $14 million NHL contract, spent on the bench during the Czech Republic’s preliminary round loss to Sweden. That’s the whole game. Tomas Kaberle, who had a lucrative summer in his own right – the Montreal Canadiens agreed to pay him $3 million over two years to not play for them — logged more than 21 minutes that night. He was on the ice for 3 of the Swedes’ 4 goals.
210 x 98 - Those are the specs, in feet, of the European-style hockey rink the game will be played on. It is 15 percent larger than the traditional North American playing surface, which measures 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. More space means less physical play and, contrary to what one might expect, less of an emphasis on pure speed. The younger, faster Americans will do their best to make the Czech team feel old, but don’t mistake action for intent: The Czechs will be more than pleased to watch the U.S. flyers skating circles around their perimeter.
2 - As in “two minutes for tripping.” The U.S. power play hasn’t gotten much burn in Sochi, but they’ve taken their chances at an impressive rate: 25 percent. Only one NHL team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, has scored on more than a quarter of their man advantages. No one else does better than 22.4 percent. The Czech team has averaged more than three minor penalties in each of its four games. Here’s where the Americans’ speed and youthful stamina could be decisive. Tired players like to clutch and grab and hook and trip. Tired players take penalties. If the U.S. can draw a few, they’ll be well on their way to that long-awaited rematch with Canada.