Inside the Miracle on Ice: How Team USA defied the numbers 40 years ago
“What we have at hand is the rarest of sporting events, an event that needs no buildup, no superfluous adjectives. In a political or nationalistic sense, I’m sure this game is being viewed with different perspectives, but manifestly, it is a hockey game.”
Al Michaels’ “Do you believe in miracles?” call in the closing seconds of the miraculous United States victory over the Soviet Union might be more iconic today, but he also provided the perfect bit of foreshadowing as he opened the 1980 Olympic Winter Games semifinal broadcast. The subject of countless books, documentaries and one major motion picture, the improbable upset in Lake Placid would end up the most famous hockey game ever played.
But what has been somewhat lost in it all — the parallel story of American discontent amid the Cold War and Iran hostage crisis, and even the intoxicating David vs. Goliath narrative — is the actual hockey itself. Think about it: Have you ever even watched the whole game? How many people in this generation have? Just how big an upset was it?
So on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the game, we took a closer look. Using modern game-tracking and evaluation metrics, we crunched the numbers behind the Americans’ daunting matchup and how they somehow managed to come out on top. In short, we went all modern on the Miracle on Ice. Here’s what we found in our comprehensive breakdown of the 4-3 victory, from the lopsided puck possession to some incredible goaltending to coach Herb Brooks’ bold strategy.
An even bigger miracle than we thought
The story first needs a Goliath, and even the most cursory look at the Soviets shows their might. They had won each of the previous four Olympic gold medals in hockey and 12 gold medals in the 16 World Championships they played in between 1961 and 1979.
The USSR also won all 12 matchups with the United States between the 1960 and 1980 Olympics, outscoring the Americans 117-26. Even when the U.S. had NHL players playing for it in the 1976 Canada Cup, it still lost to the Soviets twice (outscored 9-2). Oh, and that doesn’t even include the Soviets’ infamous 10-3 blowout exhibition win to close out the 1980 U.S. team’s pre-Olympic tour at Madison Square Garden, just one week before the Olympic Games began.
The idea of competing with the Soviets was absurd on paper. But the victory becomes even more miraculous when you see how badly the U.S. was outchanced that day by the older, more experienced Soviets. Here’s a look at possession-based numbers from the game, gathered through meticulous game-tracking by hockey analytics guru Corey Sznajder.
The most basic metric is total shot attempts — the total number of shots a team takes, whether they hit or miss the net or are blocked by the opposition, commonly known in the hockey stats community as “Corsi” — specifically those taken when both teams are skating five players a side. It is commonly presented to show possession tendencies. Consider:
In all situations, the USSR had 52 shot attempts, while the U.S. recorded just 25 (67.5% of the total attempts).
When taking that same statistic and looking at only 5-on-5 situations, the USSR held a 46-21 shot attempt advantage (68.7% shot share).
When looking at shots that hit their target, the official box score credited the USSR with 39 total shots on goal, and we determined it had 31 at 5-on-5. The United States? Try 16, and just seven at 5-on-5. We actually classified six of those 16 American shots as dump-ins on goal, too, meaning there were really 10 true shots from Team USA. A ridiculous 71% of shots on goal in the game came from the Soviets, and that number jumped to 81.6% at 5-on-5.
Running a possession deficit that substantial is not usually going to lead to success, and it’s somewhat rare to see. Over the last three NHL postseasons, there have only been five playoff games out of 258 with a possession disparity as large or larger than what we saw in the Miracle on Ice. Yet against the Soviets, losing the possession game was almost an inevitability in a “You can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them” kind of way.
Perhaps the more alarming metric is the number of scoring chances the U.S. allowed. According to our manually-tracked data, the Soviets accounted for 20 scoring chances at 5-on-5 (unblocked shots that come from within a more dangerous area of the ice). The U.S. counterpunch? We tracked seven total scoring chances during 5-on-5 play for the Americans. Seven. That’s it.
That means the Soviets owned 74.1% of the scoring chances in the game during 5-on-5 situations but scored on only two of them. The U.S., meanwhile, converted on three of their seven even-strength scoring chances. That’s some serious opportunism.
The U.S. had scored in the final second of the first period to even the score at two, leading to the unthinkable to begin the second: legendary goalie Vladislav Tretiak being benched in favor of Vladimir Myshkin. But then it only mustered two shots on net in the second frame and trailed 3-2 heading into the third period. Twenty minutes to score two goals, all while holding off the Soviet offensive attack? After a period like that? It seemed impossible against a juggernaut like the Soviets. Until it wasn’t — thanks in part to goaltender Jim Craig’s nine saves in that final frame.
Jim Craig ascends to hockey immortality
One of the single biggest reasons the Miracle on Ice will always resonate is that it is a unique example of what happens when human beings do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances. It’s probably one of the big reasons the world stops to watch the Olympics on a biannual basis.
“What good are analytics if your goalie can’t make a save?” poses Lou Vairo, a longtime USA Hockey employee who helped Team USA as an advance scout in 1980. “Jim Craig played the game of his life. He was a brilliant goalkeeper and one of the smartest goalies I’ve ever met.”
Indeed, it was the game of his life. He posted a .923 save percentage against the dominating Soviets that day (36 saves), which far outpaced his .882 career save percentage at Boston University and .857 mark in a 30-game NHL career. Without Craig’s performance, there is probably no Miracle on Ice. His ability to kick shots away and not allow many second chances were major keys to success for this team.
There was little doubt the Soviets had the better team at 5-on-5. The possession was tilted their way, as detailed above, and Craig registered an even-strength save percentage of .935 in the game. The USSR also had seven shots on the power play, and Craig stopped six of them. Perhaps most importantly, Craig stopped eight of 10 “high-danger” scoring chances over the course of the game, which are shots that come from areas on the ice most likely to result in a goal. He continuously stumped the Soviet offense.
Low and hard was the shot of choice at the time, as goalies weren’t accustomed to the butterfly style that is now commonplace. Craig turned aside 25 of the 27 shots that came his way down low. The goals he did allow were all pretty much no-doubters. They included a deflected shot off of a defensive-zone turnover, a broken play and unfortunate bounce ending with a wrist shot over his glove, and finally a breakaway from the blue line in.
It was a truly spectacular performance in the biggest of moments.
A key in-game change to shut down the Big Red Machine
To win this game, the Americans had to play it perfectly. That’s what gets lost more than anything today. Every hockey game you need a few bounces to go your way, but this was not some lucky break or fluke win.
“The thing that has stuck in my mind all these years is the brilliance of Herb and his master plan,” said Craig Patrick, Team USA’s assistant coach in 1980 and a Hockey Hall of Famer. “Because he had a plan in place the year before. He pushed them hard for seven months, and I witnessed every second of it.”
Color analyst Ken Dryden described the Soviets’ counterattack like a fast break in basketball. They thrived on odd-man break situations. But the U.S. basically cut that off by defending with numbers. There always seemed to be three or four players back, which was a credit to the U.S. speed and discipline.
Despite the possession being so tilted, the U.S. defensive strategy was incredibly disruptive to the way the Soviets were used to playing. Alexander Maltsev’s breakaway goal in the second period was the only instance where the Soviets got behind the U.S. defense for an extended odd-man break.
According to the zone entry data compiled by Sznajder, the Soviet attack gained the U.S. zone 84 times over the course of the game. The notoriously gifted puck-movers completed successful passing plays on 19% of those entries, lower than they were accustomed to. And once the Soviets got in the zone, there was next to no room to operate, as they settled for longer shots.
But getting the puck out of the zone was something that was also going to be a concern against the Soviets. And frankly, what the Americans were doing early in the game in that department was not working.
In a TV interview immediately following the game, Brooks in a rare unguarded exuberance explained, “We had a game plan, the players stayed with it. We made a change real early in the first period. Lou Vairo, Craig Patrick and myself talked about a tactical way to prevent them from pinching. I thought we walked out and got stronger as the game went on.”
The USSR used a 2-1-2 forecheck, sending two wingers in hard on the U.S. defensemen with one man operating almost as a rover in the middle of the zone. To avoid pressure, the U.S. blueliners were instructed to ring the puck hard around the boards to a winger when they retrieved it.
But a problem popped up: The Soviet defensemen were waiting for those breakout passes and would crash down to try to force a turnover. The USSR center would then cover the exposed point. The U.S. did not have a controlled exit of its zone until the fifth attempt and failed to get out at all on two of those early attempts.
Vairo had experienced similar problems when coaching the U.S. U20 team at the 1979 World Junior Championship just two months earlier. According to Vairo, the U.S. coaching staff abandoned the up-the-boards technique during the game, instead instructing defenders to put the puck into an area behind the net or into the corner for the other defenseman or center to gather while the wings skated up ice. This forced the Soviet defensemen to follow those streaking wingers instead of pinching. And it gave the puck carrier an extra second or two to either make a play or skate up the ice.
“It worked — it was very effective,” said Vairo, who is also a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and went on to coach the 1984 Olympic team. “I think that was a key ingredient in changing the game.”
The right team to pull off the upset
“I had been away from amateur hockey for 10 years, and when we went to the sports festival, I was shocked at the talent level that was available to the Olympic team,” recalled Patrick, who went on to be the general manager of the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins after his stint behind the U.S. Olympic bench. “To look back on it now, these guys played over 6,000 games in the NHL as a group and scored over 3,500 points as a group.”
Brooks trusted his players, even if they were a bit younger. (The average age of the American roster was 22.1 years old, while the Soviets averaged 25.9 years of age. The U.S. had 19-year-old Mike Ramsey, while the Soviets had 35-year-old Boris Mikhailov playing in his third and final Olympics.) The Americans were the best-conditioned team in any game they played and used their depth to their advantage.
“You know, you watch hockey games today and they shorten their bench, but Herb never shortened our bench,” said captain Mike Eruzione during a recent teleconference. “We’re playing the Soviets and we’re playing [line] one, two, three, four, one, two three, four. [Mark] Wells centered [Phil] Verchota and [Eric] Strobel as a fourth line, and trust me, that was an awfully good fourth line.
“In that Soviet game, we would — in a minute and a half to two minutes — play all four lines,” Eruzione continued. “I mean, you’d be out there for 30 seconds max, 15 seconds sometimes.”
Offensively, the U.S. players had to cash in on their opportunities. They only entered the zone with possession on 34 of their 69 total entries. Their chances were almost always one and done. That’s where skill comes into play. With only seven even-strength scoring chances, they had to be skilled enough to make them count. On this night, they were.
Each of the U.S. goals shared some combination of skill and/or work ethic. Buzz Schneider’s first-period goal was an absolute rocket shot. Johnson’s last-second goal was equal parts hustle and skill as he completely fooled Tretiak with a split-second decision to hold the puck just a tick longer before depositing it in the net. Johnson’s second goal came on the power play after Dave Silk took a hit to make a play and the puck bounced through a Soviet defender’s skates right onto Johnson’s stick. Then came Eruzione.
“That was a goal scorer’s goal,” says Vairo. “Only a sharpshooter could score that.”
Eruzione had two shots on goal the entire game, the last of which became one of the most famous goals ever scored: a low, hard wrist shot past a kneeling defender and in a very difficult place for Myshkin to get a piece of it.
“I scored a goal against the Soviets in the exhibition game, almost the exact same place and the exact same spot in Madison Square Garden. Tretiak was the goalie then,” Eruzione recalled. “It was a shot I had taken in practice.”
But the U.S. still had to hold on for 10 minutes after Eruzione scored. Two shifts later, Vladimir Krutov hit the post from a tough angle in what ended up being the Soviet’s best chance to tie the game. The middle of the American zone was clogged up with five bodies in white jerseys just about every time the Big Red Machine entered the zone.
The U.S. would also dump pucks out to the neutral zone every chance they got, forcing the USSR to regroup and try again. The Soviets had nine total shot attempts after Eruzione scored, while the Americans had two. It was basically a prevent defense, and it was torture to the highly skilled Soviets.
Among the players who had the biggest impact in getting out of the zone were defensemen Bill Baker and Dave Christian. Baker was 13-for-13 in getting the puck out, while Christian — a converted forward — had seven controlled exits. Silk was the best among forwards, helping get the puck out of the U.S. zone on 12 attempts and having five successful zone entries — on top of the two assists he racked up against the Soviets.
Ken Morrow continually broke up passes, delivered hard body checks and was credited with 10 total zone exits. It’s no wonder he stepped right onto the New York Islanders after the Olympics and helped them win four consecutive Stanley Cups, the first of which came that very spring. And Johnson, whom Eruzione calls by far the best player on the team, had two big goals but was also USA’s top guy in carrying the puck into the Soviet zone, which he did six times. He ended up the team’s leading scorer in the tournament with 11 points.
You could almost go player by player and find contributions. Defending with numbers doesn’t work unless everyone is doing their job.
“What stands out strongest in my mind, we definitely deserved to have the gold medal,” says Patrick, who remains in hockey as a pro scout with the Penguins. It was an improbable miracle, but the Americans carried out what they wanted to do against the Soviets. They had the right players, the right goalie and the right coaching staff.
The admittedly ironic thing about statistically breaking down this game is that it’s one of the better examples of why, sometimes, the numbers just don’t matter. The metrics do help us better understand what those American 20-somethings were up against and how they overcame it. But in the end, the scoreboard will always read USA 4, USSR 3.
Note: Corey Sznajder, who has consulted with NHL teams and manually tracks and documents NHL game film to help produce micro-stats for public consumption, assisted by helping track the complete footage of the original ABC broadcast that aired on tape delay on Feb. 22, 1980. All advanced data in this story is from Sznajder and Peters.