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Can the United States create another miracle on ice?

Eric Adelson
Columnist

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — A bunch of plucky American college kids. Some hallowed hockey players from Russia. The Winter Olympics. Seems like it could make for a good movie.

Alas no, this is not “Miracle.” The U.S. does not have a team consisting of only amateurs, and the Olympic Athletes from Russia do not have a murderers row of superstars. But Saturday’s matchup between Team USA and the artist formerly known as Russia has some familiar echoes – especially after the United States’ 2-1 victory over Slovakia here on Friday.

That 1980 team had a bunch of college players from Boston, and three of the four American goals so far in this tournament came off the sticks of players from Beanpot teams. Jordan Greenway of Boston University scored in the opening loss, and on Friday, Harvard’s Ryan Donato got both lamplighters for the U.S.

That duo is two of only four skaters on the U.S. roster born in the 1990s. The team consists mostly of older players in pro leagues around the globe. Captain Brian Gionta was born in 1979.

Former G.M. Jim Johannson, who died tragically last month, decided to add some youth to the team in the months leading up to the Games. He picked wisely. Greenway is a presence already; Troy Terry of the University of Denver has critical experience from the World Junior Championships. And Donato is the son of Ted Donato, who was tied for the Team USA lead in points in the 1992 Games. Ted coaches Ryan at Harvard, and he coaches here too, apparently.

During a phone call home after the Americans lost to Slovenia earlier in the week, father Ted advised son Ryan to keep his shots low and by the goalie’s blocker. That advice popped into Ryan’s mind when he found himself with a clean shot on the power play in the first period. He did as his dad told him and buried it for the U.S. team’s first goal. Slovakia tied it seconds later, but it was Donato again in the third, corralling the puck by the net, twisting to his forehand and finding the five-hole to score what would be the game-winner.

For at least a few hours, the win vaulted the Americans to the top of their group with four points (three from the victory, one from taking Slovenia to overtime). But the turnaround between games is tight, as just over 30 hours separate the end of the Slovakia game and the start of the match against O.A.R.

The Russians have a ton of talent and a ton of pressure. They were arguably the team least affected by the NHL decision to stay home, as they were able to cull all of their players from KHL rosters. Included in the group are stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk. Those are guys Donato and Terry and Greenway grew up idolizing on TV.

Now they are charged with facing them in the Olympics.

“As we started to evaluate players,” Granato said Friday, “we were like, ‘OK, how is this player, character-wise, experience-wise, gonna be ready for the big ice?'”

Players from the United States celebrate after Ryan Donato scores a goal against Slovakia during the third period of the preliminary round of the men’s hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics. (AP)

Greenway seems ready. Terry seems ready. Donato seems ready.

This is really the best part of the absence of the NHL players. College players who otherwise would be watching at home are now not only participating, but taking lead roles.

“Their confidence, their ability, they want to be over the boards and on the ice and in the action,” Granato said. “They’re not waiting, on their heels, [as if] this is too big. They’re going to be great players for a long time.”

It’s too soon to tell if the youth movement will build. As the Games go on, experience will matter more. But energy matters, too. So does moxie.

“They’re extremely composed,” said Gionta. “They’re great players. They’re a big part of this team like Coach said early on, leading into the tournament.”

And the mash-up of a roster is coming together quite well considering the range of ability, background and age. The U.S. has one win and very nearly had another. It’s starting to click.

“Every game you get a little more comfortable,” said goalie Ryan Zapolski. “It’s a new team. Six or seven [defensemen] I’ve never played with before. It’s different. Every day, every game we’re learning about each other and getting better.”

There will be a lot of eyes on this next game back home. Nobody really knows what to make of Team USA yet. But a win over the favorite in the tournament will raise the excitement level considerably. A win against the Russians will change this team from a curiosity to a story.

Donato. Greenway. Terry. They may not be names you know. But they may be names you need to learn.

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