Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk were dominating the NHL before Ryan Donato, Troy Terry and Jordan Greenway even started playing organized hockey.
"I think I dreamed about playing against those guys one day," Donato said.
Dream becomes reality Saturday when Donato, Terry, Greenway and the United States face Kovalchuk, Datsyuk and the Russians in a much-anticipated game that could determine who wins the group and advances directly the Olympic quarterfinals. With three players in their early 20s leading the way, the Americans are young and inexperienced but say they aren't intimidated by the team of Russian athletes that blew out the same Slovenia team the Americans lost to in overtime.
"It's exciting as opposed to the fear of, 'Oh my gosh, we're on the ice with these guys,'" coach Tony Granato said after the U.S. beat Slovakia. "They've been in the big situations before."
Terry, 20, conceded he has to get over the fact that he's facing Datysuk, who at 39 is old enough to be his father. Terry has already figured out how he can succeed at the Olympics — using his young legs to generate the speed that not a lot of older players possess — to gain an upper hand.
Facing the favored Russians is another mental obstacle.
"Just realize that I belong here and I can make a difference," Terry said. "I think the more that we just kind of settle in and not make too big a deal out of the game and just know it's another hockey game is the biggest thing for us."
It is kind of a big deal. The U.S. leads Group B with four points, followed by the Russians and Slovakia with three each and Slovenia with two, and would avoid the qualification round with a regulation victory.
Granato and captain Brian Gionta, the only U.S. player with previous Olympic experience, told players they have an opportunity in front of them. The Russians' opening loss to Slovakia created as many questions as the U.S. losing to Slovenia, but there's no way anyone underestimates them after winning a game 8-2.
"We know they'll be at their best," Granato said. "But I think there's also things that we know amongst ourselves that we think we can compete with and play with them."
Chief among those things is young skill, something the U.S. hoped it had in its four college players: Donato (Harvard), Terry (Denver), Greenway (Boston University) and defenseman Will Borgen (Notre Dame). Borgen could make his Olympic debut against Russia, though his NCAA colleagues are already making an impact having scored three of the Americans' four goals so far.
"The college guys that we have on our team have been doing really well, have been pulling their weight," Greenway said. "We're just trying to have every impact we can for the team."
They could continue to have a big impact against the Russians, four years after these two countries met in an epic showdown that culminated in an eight-round shootout won by T.J. Oshie. As if Terry doesn't have enough pressure on him already as the youngest U.S. player, he was the shootout hero en route to gold at the 2017 world junior championship and has been getting tweets about reprising that performance at the Olympics.
"I really hope that we don't have to go to that," Terry said. "I'm ready if it comes."
The "Olympic Athletes from Russia" put themselves in contention to be one of the top four teams going into the medal round by crushing Slovakia behind three goals from Minnesota Wild prospect Kirill Kaprizov and two from Kovalchuk.
"The whole team played great," Kaprizov said. "Everyone was excellent. But there is room to grow."
The same is true for the young Americans, who are not just building for this game but the road ahead.
"It's a long tournament, and every little shift and every little game matters," Donato said. "We're going to have to stay focused and not worry about that, but I think we've just got to worry about our own game and hopefully it'll turn out in our favor."
More AP Olympics: https://wintergames.ap.org
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.