The only time Jim Craig has been in goal against the Soviet hockey team was in Madison Square Garden three days before the Winter Olympics began.

"It was for a period," he said today, "and they got four by me. I went off and said: 'Geez, is that all? I did a pretty good job.'"

Craig is America's last line of defense -- and a realist. The Soviet team he and the collected other U.S. collegians and pro dropouts face today is basically the one that whipped the National Hockey League all-stars -- only better.

The football analogy would be the Pittsburgh Steelers versus one of the better teams from the Mid-American Conference. No rational person expects the U.S. team to win -- and if the Soviets are suitably inspired it could be depressing by the 30th minute.

"But maybe they'll play like they have the last two games," Jack Riley, coach of the last U.S. hockey team to win a gold medal, in 1960, argued hopefully while the team practiced today. "They haven't played well, by their standards.

"They've passed to the opposition -- and that never happens.And (goal-keeper Vladislav) Tretiak didn't have a good last game. He was beaten once on a 60-footer -- and then a Canadian took him on the short side.

"He usually doesn't give too many gifts."

Playing casually, even sloppily at times, the Soviets have overcome deficits against Finland and Canada in their last two games. They canceled a scheduled workout in the Olympic arena late this afternoon.

"They know what their mission is," said a man who has been acting as a translator and general aide since the team arrived in the states Feb. 8.

That grim air of professionalism was in severe contrast to a U.S. team playful and outgoing throughout its practice, a team that has endured all manner of inconveniences for months for just this chance.

"Might be history in the making," said Craig, who did not assume his position in goal during the practice because a puck accidentially hit him in the throat before Wednesday's victory over West Germany and his neck area still was stiff. "If anybody's gonna beat 'em, it might as well be us.

"We played 60 games to get ready for a five-game (Olympic) series. We're undefeated in those five (with a tie against Sweden). Now we've got two more games to go. All we got to do is win those two, right?"

He smiled. Like the others on the U.S. team, he is an appealing player who realizes full well the brash siliness of that last remark, the harsh truth that the Soviets have written in their press guide:

"Thus, six Olympic ice hockey tournaments are in the history chronicles . . . The Soviet team played 40 matches, having won 35 out of them, drawn 2 and lost 3 . . . and scored 290 goals and given up 80."

The numbers have taken another impressive click here. The Soviets have won all five preliminary games, scoring 51 goals and allowing 11. Of the top 10 scorers in their division, eight were Soviets.

America's team allowed just 10 goals, but scored only 25. It needed to win by seven goals Wednesday night against West Germany to overtake Sweden for preferred seeding in the final-four round and fell five short; it did not need to win to make the medal round.

"That was a job," Craig said. "Just another game you just want to win.We've got a nervous tired now, glad the preliminaries are over. There's no pressure on us (against the Soviets), but we'll be so high we'll be tiptoeing onto the ice. I just hope our shots are low enough."

Craig talked about no longer being in awe of the Soviets. Mark Johnson wasn't so sure.

"I've been watching hockey a long time and I've seen some great players," said Johnson, 22, and son of the '76 U.S. Olympic coach, Bob Johnson, ". . . . but I never saw any of them do what (Aleksandr) Maltsev did against us.

"He came down on the right side, one on one, did a complete 360-degree turn -- going full steam -- then backhanded the puck into our net. Eleven thousand people and 20 (U.S.) players were absolutely stunned. Maltsev skated back to the bench and sat down, like it was just another goal . . ."

If the Soviet goalkeeper, Tretiak, going for his third Olympic gold medal, has been dramatically uncertain of late, neither has Craig inspired overwhelming confidence, in the net or with his pre-Soviet remarks.

"I'll try to treat every period as a separate game," he said. "I won't be disappointed with a 2-2-2." He means he believes it probably will take seven goals to win.

The U.S. captain, Mike Eruzione, has a victory scenario.

"We've got to get outstanding goal-keeping," he said. "And we need an early break, a goal or two (to keep the nationalistic crowd at fever pitch.) We can't be down in the last period, 'cause their experience will kill you.

"We'll be a completely different team (from the one that lost by 10-3 to the Soviets in Madison Square Garden)."

Riley thought the Garden experience might be beneficial to the Americans.

"You win a game like that you feel sure that's what'll happen next time," he said. "But if you lose like that, you can't wait to get back on the ice again."

"I'd like to be in the same position as the Finns," Eruzione said, "up 2-1 with four minutes left to play. But the Finns were in awe of them, like people used to get against the old Celtics.I think we got that out of our system."

Craig remains hopeful -- but certain of just one thing; "I'm gonna see a lot of shots."