The first sign of an upset in the making came at the end of the first period. With time running out, Dave Christian took a long shot. Tretiak stopped it easily, but kicked out a rebound. The Soviet defensemen, expecting the buzzer, seemed to let up on the play. Johnson crashed between them and scored.
As officials discussed whether Johnson’s shot had beaten the buzzer, the Soviets went to their locker room for the intermission. Once the goal was confirmed, they were called back for a faceoff to tick away the final second. They returned without Tretiak. The world’s best goaltender had been replaced by backup Vladimir Myshkin.
The Americans had faced the Soviet assault for 20 minutes and come away on even terms. They had also chased a legend from the net. Years later, when they were NHL teammates, Johnson asked Soviet defenseman Slava Fetisov why coach Viktor Tikhonov had shown so little faith in Tretiak. “Coach crazy,” replied Fetisov.
“I don’t think I should have been replaced in that game,” Tretiak wrote in his autobiography. “I had made so many mistakes already, I was confident my play would only improve. (Myshkin) is an excellent goalie, but he wasn’t prepared for the struggle, he wasn’t ‘tuned in’ to the Americans.” Tikhonov later suggested the change was made under pressure from Soviet officials at the game.
The Soviets regrouped, and were even more dominant in the second period. The Americans managed just two shots on goal, while Craig fended off waves of attackers before Alexander Maltsev scored on a breakaway. The Soviets, having carried the play for two periods, had only a 3-2 lead to show for it.
In the final 20 minutes, a pillar of the Brooks strategy – speed – came to the fore. Tikhonov relied heavily on veterans like Kharlamov and Mikhailov, players the Americans could catch. “Dave Silk remembers looking across the faceoff circle, hoping the face he saw would not be that of a Krutov, the player the Americans feared most, or Makarov,” writes Lawrence Martin in The Red Machine. “In the third period, his wish was continuously being granted. He would see the veteran Mikhailov, and Silk knew he could skate past him.”
The Americans pulled even on a power play goal, Johnson firing home a loose puck fumbled by a Soviet defenseman. Another defensive mistake created the history-making moment: Vasily Pervukin’s clearing pass was stopped by Pavelich. Eruzione scooped it up, skating into the high slot and throwing a 25-foot wrist shot past the screened Myshkin. USA 4 – USSR 3.
But 10 minutes remained. Leaving younger, fresher players on the bench, Tikhonov trusted his veterans. Brooks rolled four lines in quick shifts, taking advantage of tired Soviet legs. “It was the first time I ever saw the Soviets panic,” said Craig. “They were just throwing the puck forward, hoping somebody would be there.”
As the Soviets mounted a final charge, broadcaster Al Michaels delivered the most famous call in American sport: "Eleven seconds. You got ten seconds, the countdown going on right now. Five seconds left in the game! Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"
The building erupted and Craig was mobbed by his teammates. The Soviets waited quietly. Then the teams shook hands, the losers offering their congratulations, even smiling. Later, when Johnson and Eric Strobel were selected for urinanlysis, they met Kharlamov and Mikhailov in the waiting room. “Nice game,” said Mikhailov.
That dramatic win is what most people recall as the “Miracle on Ice.” But two games remained in the tournament. If the Americans lost against Finland and the Soviets defeated Sweden, the USSR would be gold medalists again. Team USA’s upset of the champions would go down as a curious footnote, nothing more.
“There was incredible apprehension before this game,” said backup goalie Steve Janaszak. “We were horrified by the thought that we'd be sitting around 10 years later and wondering how we could lose the gold medal after coming so close.” Brooks, fearing an emotional letdown, ran a hard practice the day before the game, taunting his players: “You’re too young. You can’t win this.”
With millions of new American hockey fans watching, it appeared his concern was well-founded. Finland, a solid team, built a 2-1 lead after two periods. Before their final 20 minutes together, the coach warned his players: “This will haunt you the rest of your lives.” The team responded with another excellent finish. Goals by Phil Verchota, Rob McClanahan and Johnson sealed the gold medal.
In the pandemonium that followed, with Mike Eruzione calling his teammates to join him on the medal podium, American hockey found its defining moment.
“This impossible dream comes true!" cried Michaels, in a less memorable broadcast line. He captured it better during the medal ceremony: “No scriptwriter would ever dare.”