Other than the final score, the USA-USSR game unfolded as expected.
The Soviets jumped out to a lead in the ninth minute on a sloppy play by the Americans. Buzz Schneider inexplicably lost the puck, putting it right on Alexei Kasatonov's stick. Kasatonov's shot was deflected into the net by Vladimir Krutov. The Soviets were up 1-0 but were thoroughly outplaying the Americans. Throughout the game they would control the puck, outshooting the USA team 39 to 16.
Schneider redeemed himself with a long-distance goal in the 14th minute, putting the puck past Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak. Tretiak, who had earned gold medals in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, was considered the best goalie in the world and perhaps the greatest goalie to ever play the game.
Schneider's goal wasn't the result of Soviet-style artistry - intricate passes, deft skating and quick wrist shots. It was old-fashioned pond hockey, a booming slapshot from far beyond the blue line. Al Michaels voiced what Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov was surely thinking: "That's the type of goal you don't expect someone like Tretiak to give up."
After a flurry of Soviet scoring chances the Red Army team went up 2-1. As the first period wound down and the Soviets relaxed with just seconds left, Steve Christian attempted a hopeless shot from the American zone - the equivalent of a Hail Mary in football - that Tretiak sloppily deflected. Mark Johnson outskated two Soviet defenders who were anticipating the end of the period and put the rebound into the net with one second left.
Tretiak was pulled. The best goalie in the world was no longer in the net.
"I think the turning point was when Tretiak made a mistake, when he kicked the puck back. He thought [the period] was finished and it wasn't. There was still one second on the clock or something like that. ... Then the coach took him off and put the other goalie in. That raised the level even more for the Americans."
- Nico Toemen, the referee for the Miracle on Ice game
"When they end up pulling their very best goalie you know that they're having issues and they're not as confident as what they would expect. Because that is not something that you have in the playbook. Whenever you go into a competition you've got plan A, B, C, or D. Pulling Tretiak is probably plan M, N, or P."
- Eric Heiden, winner of five speedskating gold medals in 1980
At first it didn't matter. The Soviets went up early in the second period on a beautiful breakaway goal during a power play. They were up 3-2 and seemed to be on pace to score 7 or 8 goals - a normal amount for the juggernaut Red Army team. Again and again the Soviets would threaten. Shots went wide. Dangerous opportunities would be stymied by American defenders who got the tip of a stick on a pass. More than anything, Jim Craig played out of his mind in the goal, knocking away shot after shot.
"The way Jim Craig played, he was in a zone the whole tournament but it culminated that night against the Russians. ... Truly the game really slows down. You see the puck so clear. It looks so big. It looks like it's coming relatively slow at you. You feel like you have all the time in the world to react. ... As the opposition, when you run into a goalie like that there's not much you can do."
- Olie Kolzig, longtime NHL goalie, goaltending coach for the Washington Capitals
On the ice, the Soviets kept their composure. Soviet players would later admit that they weren't worried. The goals would come, they figured, as they always did.
With a little over 11 minutes left in the match the Americans tied the game 3-3 on a graceful Mark Johnson power play goal. Fans in the arena and at home - who had been waiting with trepidation for the Soviet assault that would put the game out of reach - instead had a tie game in the third period.
The Americans had done their job. Just staying close to the Soviets was a triumph. A tie would be a better result than anyone had anticipated and would be a big step toward a possible bronze. A tie would have stunned the hockey world.
A minute after Johnson's goal, Mike Eruzione scored a goal on a mid-range slapshot. Eruzione's dance of joy said it all, as the captain of the team high-stepped across the ice into the arms of his teammates. Herb Brooks smiled slyly and looked at the clock. Ten minutes to victory.
The USA team survived close calls down the stretch. Shortly after Eruzione's goal Aleksandr Maltsev stood in front of an empty net, Craig badly out of position, and couldn't redirect a pass for an easy goal. With under a minute left there was another heart-in-your-throat moment as Vladimir Petrov had a clear shot just feet away from the net and forced it wide. As the clock ticked down the fans chanted, "5-4-3-2-1." Al Michaels asked "Do you believe in miracles?" and mayhem broke out on the ice as the American team celebrated their unlikely victory.