Proving their mettle
Gritty game shows Americans, Russians both contendersPosted: Sunday February 17, 2002 2:28 AM
Updated: Sunday February 17, 2002 4:09 AM
Mike Modano as the gritty checker. Brett Hull peeling back and holding the defensive blueline. John LeClair takes a turn on the penalty kill.
Thatís how this game started for Team USA -- every player willing to chip in. After all, this was USA-Russia and we all know what that means when it comes to rivalries. Team USA didnít get much going offensively, but defensively they were stalwarts, blocking and deflecting more shots than did Mike Richter.
Both teams seemed content to spar in the first, rather than slug it out. It was obvious from the outset, though, that both coaches were intent on involving everyone -- no spare parts accepted. The reward for Team USAís patience came early in the second when they cashed in on a 5-on-3 power play. Other than that, they failed to mount much of an attack at all again. In fact, they relied too heavily on the brilliant goaltending of Richter. He was the difference in the second period, keeping Russia from running away.
Despite the fine play of the team overall, there was still the sense that Nikolai Khabibulin still hasnít found his game. The goal surrendered was the fourth power-play goal allowed and all five goals he has given up through five periods have been weak. He appeared frozen in the fray -- mesmerized by the action -- unable to move laterally and seemingly slow to pick up shots sent his way -- even those launched from long range.
When Khabibulin is on his game, he plays deep in his crease, down on his knees and is lightning quick moving laterally. So, while the game was even through two periods, the goaltending was anything but close. Richter was performing at the top of his game, while Khabibulin had all the symptoms of a guy beyond searching to get comfortable, he was flat-out fighting it.
And the third showed a bit of both those traits -- the Russians took the lead on the powerplay and Khabibulin couldnít make it stand up. However, he actually looked more comfortable, as Team USA played their best hockey after the fell behind 2-1. They threw everything at the net, allowing Khabibulin to establish a rhythm. Team USA got it tied, but might have lost as well, as Keith Tkachuk left the game late favoring his left knee after being leveled by Vladimir Malakhov.
The game settled nothing, but proved plenty -- the pre-tournament hype surrounding the Russians is valid and Team USA í02 is a serious medal threat.
Goaltender: Richter was solid early and late, splendid in between. His reading of the play and reaction to the cross-ice one-time shot was outstanding. Without his play in the second, Team USA would have had their momentum squelched. It remains intact, thanks to Richter.
Forward: Sergei Fedorov was seemingly everywhere for Russia, both offensively and defensively. He scored on the power play, collecting the rebound of 18-year-old linemate Ilya Kovalchuk. Federovís brilliance was in his ability to compliment Kovalchuk and Sergei Samsonov offensively, while taking responsibility for the line defensively -- dropping back and playing as the third man back along with the defensemen.
Defenseman: Vladimir Malakhovís open ice hit on the burly Tkachuk was thunderous. But, his overall game was solid, paired with Boris Mironov. Malakhov made several nice outlet feeds to spring the Russian attack through the neutral zone. Malakhov also stayed back conservatively, allowing Mironov to jump up and join the rush.
Darren Eliot, a former NHL goaltender, is a hockey analyst for CNN/Sports Illustrated and will provide Olympic hockey commentary throughout the Games for CNNSI.com.