CNNSI.com Winter Olympics 2002 Ice Hockey Winter Olympics 2002 Ice Hockey


 

Iron curtain

Khabibulin's brilliant play put Russia into semifinals

Posted: Wednesday February 20, 2002 6:50 PM
Updated: Wednesday February 20, 2002 11:27 PM

 

Funny how times change. Once this matchup was all things that stood for European hockey excellence. Now, it simply stands for hockey excellence. Players from these great hockey-playing nations have now long been a part of the NHL and left their imprints.

But in the first period, the NHLís influence was evident, namely the importance of and reliance on goaltending and special teams. Russian netminder Nikolai Khabibulin stared down his counterpart Dominik Hasek, making 16 saves. Hasek, though, comes by his Dominator moniker honestly, failing to blink first in this high-stakes staring contest. But Khabibulinís early brilliance allowed the Russians to survive a 4-on-3 power play against and two 5-on-3 man advantages.

Itís coming one game earlier than the scriptwriters would have had it, but the matchup is here. The U.S. plays Russia in the semifinals on Friday, a rematch of last Saturdayís gorgeous 2-2 tie, and the U.S. will see something they havenít seen before in these Olympics: Nikolai Khabibulin.

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    Russia broke through early in the second, although Hasek canít be accused of blinking -- he never saw the quick shot by Maxim Afinogenov in traffic -- the result of an Alexei Yashin face-off win. The Czech Republic opened up the attack slightly once they fell behind, but could not solve Khabibulin. His task was made easier by his defense, as they gave ground, but kept the shooters to the outside, allowing their Ďkeeper to see every bid. Russia couldnít secure that crucial second tally, despite not abandoning its focus on offense. Hasek held firm -- aided in part by a gracious crossbar on an Alexei Kovalev breakaway. Khabibulin was likewise fortunate on a Jiri Dopita attempted putback, sending the contest to the third period 1-0.

    In the final frenetic frame, Hasek refused to budge; meaning it was all about Khabibulinís ability to go the distance in shutout fashion. And the Czechs skated with purpose, easily attaining the offensive zone, as their speed backed the Russian defense off the blueline.

     
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    This forced Russia into the unenviable position of defending its slim margin from the top of the face-off circles in -- low percentage with the Czechs running their offense on the edges of the dangerous scoring area the entire period. Not surprisingly, they worked the puck into the slot repeatedly, forcing Khabibulin to elevate his game from great to game-saving. He was up to the task. In a dazzling array of composure and athleticism, Khabibulin provided the margin of victory.

    Behind the bench, Slava Fetisov continued his unconventional, bordering-on-contrarian style. He played offensive-minded youngsters Ilya Kovalchuk and Afinogenov in the last minute. Kovalev saw plenty of ice-time down the stretch -- a veteran player seldom characterized as a defensive stalwart. Offensive-minded defenseman Sergei Gonchar was on the ice in the gameís waning seconds.

    In the end, Khabibulinís heroics made it all seem right.

    Game's best

    Goaltender: Khabibulin turned in a career-defining performance, showing the world he truly is an elite netminder and not just a very good goalie trapped on a mostly mediocre NHL team.

    Defense: Vladimir Malakhov provided the type of play required on Jaromir Jagr -- physical while at the same time positionally sound. He was a force the entire game down low in Team Russiaís defensive zone -- an area in which he and his teammates spent too much time.

    Forward: Andrei Nikolishin was on the ice for every meaningful face-off, which meant plenty of ice time in this close, hotly contested contest. He and linemate Yashin, along with Sergei Fedorov all did a nice job neutralizing Jagr as well. In a tight game like this, Nikolishinís contributions were critical.

    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.


     
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