The US men's hockey team left Sochi empty-handed, so it was up to America's sled hockey squad to bring home a medal. And they came up big. In Saturday's gold medal game against Russia, Team USA defeated the host team 1-0 to win the first ever back-to-back sled hockey gold medals in Paralympic history.
"I've coached guys in the National Hockey League and guys that have won national championships, but the chemistry on this team with a 15-year-old and a 35-year old player is better than any team I've ever coached," US coach Jeff Sauer said.
This was the second meeting between the two teams. Earlier in the tournament, Russia defeated the US, 2-1, during group play. So when it came time for the elimination round, the Americans were anxious to get another shot at the home team.
"We came into this tournament with high hopes, and going into Saturday's game against Russia, we believe strongly that we can accomplish that goal of winning a gold medal," forward Rico Roman wrote in a blog post before the game.
In the semi-finals, the US defeated Canada, 3-0, and Russia beat Norway, 4-0, to reach the gold medal round. But in the final game offensive opportunities were tough to come by. The two times could only manage three combined shots in the first period. And when the final buzzer sounded, Russia had outshot the US, 6-4.
But Team USA made the most of their limited chances. Near the end of the second period, forward Josh Sweeney found himself in open ice with the puck on his stick and flipped it over Russian goalie Vladimir Kamantcev.
"I got it from that defender and I was a little surprised to be able to have a breakaway in the gold medal match," said Sweeney, a Marine veteran who was awarded the Purple Heart. "I just got fortunate."
Sweeney's score would be the game's only goal. But that was enough for Team USA and goalie Steve Cash, who kept the Russians off the board despite some quality chances at the end of the game.
"Sweeney played out of his mind. He has done that the whole tournament and worked so hard that it spreads throughout the whole team," defenseman Taylor Chase said.
With their victory, the Americans won their second consecutive gold and fourth overall medal since 2002. And while Russia came up short, winning silver was a solid result for a national sled hockey team playing in its first tournament.
“I’m not disappointed at all,” Kamantcev said. “We played well. It’s a dignified finish for Russia and for ourselves. We showed a good game, a battle, intellect, will and character.”
Canada rounded out the medal stand by defeating Norway to win bronze.
Check out our profile of Team USA forward Rico Roman from our January/February issue!
Photo: Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images