March 11 has been circled on the calendar for months.
It is the day the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team will play host Russia at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
“Playing a country on their home ice is the most fun you can possibly have,” said U.S. team captain Andy Yohe, a three-time Paralympian who has a gold medal from 2010 and a bronze medal from 2006. “The one thing that all of us wanted to do at the Paralympics in Vancouver was play Canada but we never got that chance. It will be incredible to play Russia on home ice. I’m really excited for it.”
Russia, which fell to Korea 3-2 on Day 1, must beat the United States to advance to the medal round. In preliminary play, Team USA is 2-0, beating Italy 5-1 and Korea 3-0.
“It will be packed,” Yohe said. “The crowd will be going crazy. I think the important thing for us is to draw energy from the crowd. Whether they’re cheering for you or against you, you have to use the excitement of the building. I think it will be one of the most exciting things to watch at the Paralympics.”
Russia is debuting in sled hockey at the Paralympic Winter Games this year. Since starting a sled hockey program just just three years ago, Russia has become one of the best teams in the world, winning a bronze medal at last year’s International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships A-Pool in Goyang, South Korea. Canada and the U.S. were first and second.
“Without a doubt, the world is more talented than ever before,” said three-time U.S. Paralympian Taylor Lipsett, also a Paralympic gold and bronze medalist. “Back in 2006 when I competed at the Paralympics for the first time, everyone knew that it would be Canada, Norway and the United States at the top in some order. It’s not like that anymore. Every team is competitive.”
The U.S. has never lost to Russia in sled hockey before.
“It doesn’t matter if you beat a team 50 times before,” Lipsett said. “Even if you’ve beat them recently, that doesn’t really matter. You have to treat every game like it’s a gold medal game so that’s what we’re going to do. We can’t overlook anyone. That’s our goal, to play every game like it’s the gold medal game. We need to focus on us and not worry about who we are playing.”
In their final tune-up before Sochi, the Russians outscored Sweden, Norway and Czech Republic by a combined 21-1 score at the 2014 Ice Sledge Hockey International Tournament hosted in Podolsk, Russia.
“Russia is extremely good,” Lipsett said. “They’re the closest team as far as style of play to the U.S. and Canada. They’re super physical. They’re quick. They move very well with the puck. They’re definitely going to be a really hard team to beat, especially on home ice in Sochi.”
The game will be live on TeamUSA.org at 8:30 a.m. ET. The game will also be shown on tape delay Tuesday on NBCSN.
“If I could write the script, we would have a really close game with Russia, like down to the wire overtime,” said Josh Pauls, a 2010 gold medalist. “And we would win it in dramatic fashion. I can’t think of anything more exciting than that.”