Seizing the opportunity
Impressive performance vs. Belarus a good building blockPosted: Monday February 18, 2002 4:24 PM
Updated: Monday February 18, 2002 6:14 PM
Team USA looks every bit a team that is embracing the moment. Even with power forward Keith Tkachuk sidelined and its line combinations scrambled as a result, the attack was seamless.
Although they gave up the first goal on the first shot in the first 20 seconds, they remained relentless. And with Tom Barrasso being the third netminder in three games to start for the Americans, the tendency towards distraction was possible.
There was no division of attention, however, just workmanlike efficiency. Team USA didnít complicate the game by worrying about the opposition, instead sticking to the task at hand, namely executing their game plan.
If you want a comparison, whereas Team Canada played with an air of panic at times against a less-talented opponent in Sundayís 3-2 win -- appearing particularly unnerved when the Germans scored -- Team USA skated with authority from start to finish versus Belarus. Its style and the pace at which it played was unwavering, never dictated by the situation.
Leading the way through three games has been John LeClair and Brett Hull, a set of wingers who have been the best players for Team USA thus far. Against Belarus, it was no exception. Along with Mike Modano at center, the line took control of the offense in the second period, scoring all three goals. Actually, the line was dominant from the outset and only the brilliant play of Belarus netminder Andrei Mezin kept it off the scoresheet in the first period.
In the first two games of the tournament, LeClair and Hull flanked centerman Doug Weight. But with Tkachuk out, coach Herb Brooks shuffled his line combinations and went with a couple of naturals. Brooks moved Scott Young with Weight, both of whom skate for the St. Louis Blues, and Young responded with a couple of goals. Then, putting Modano with Hull is hardly a stretch -- the two played on the same line for much of Hullís three seasons with the Dallas Stars. In fact, as Belarus unraveled in the third, every U.S. line tallied at least one marker.
All the maneuvers made by Brooks have worked beautifully, even the unconventional handling of his goaltending. It underscores the biggest difference between 1998 and 2002 for the Americans. From the outset, Brooks insisted that these first three games mattered. That is in stark contrast to the approach in Nagano, where the Americans viewed the games as tuneups for the elimination round. They never got it right. This time everyone has been included and everyone has contributed as Team USA heads to the quarterfinal elimination game as the top seed from its bracket -- right where it wanted to be.
So, everything is on schedule for the host Americans, who have to wait until Wednesday to prove definitively how far they have traveled since the games in Nagano. Japan.
Goaltender: Mezin was brilliant through two periods, but succumbed along with the rest of his team to the USA onslaught. Barrasso had few tough chances to contend with, but he did make a couple of saves immediately after surrendering the early goal, showing his team that he was unfazed and poised. With the win, he gets the nod as the game's best in net.
Defenseman: Collectively, the American defensemen moved the puck to the forwards smoothly and effectively. There wasnít much resistance from the Belarussian forecheckers, but they did their job. To pick one, Brian Rafalski continues to improve game by game, looking sure-handed in transition.
Forward: Hull was brilliant from the gameís beginning. He continues to use the extra room on the larger ice surface to his advantage, timing his moves to the open ice like no else. His teammates scored often in the later going, but it was Hull who got the proceedings under way.
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.