Twenty-two years later, USA will fall in a shootoutPosted: Wednesday February 20, 2002 11:19 PM
Updated: Thursday February 21, 2002 3:00 AM
I donít know what you call the fact that a rematch will occur 22 years ago to the day that was the defining moment in United States hockey. Symmetry? History? Irony? No matter, this matchup is more even than that of the fabled memorable moment, the Miracle on Ice, when a pack of unknown American college players stunned the big, bad USSR 4-3.
Still, the emotional components of the circumstances are hard to ignore. Ponder, for instance, that Herb Brooks coached that American entry, as is the case here, while Slava Fetisov -- the all-time great among defensemen and a stalwart on that shocked Soviet Union team in 1980 -- coaches this Russian edition.
There are enough -- one gets the sense that this game has the potential to be something remarkable -- differences from 1980, but this game is special in its own right.
Certainly, the strength of the Americans lies in its forward corps. They have been prolific in their offensive production, led by the top line of Brett Hull-Mike Modano-John LeClair. LeClair has been a revelation -- a power forward having an impact on the larger ice surface. He may be critical to US success in this one, as will Keith Tkachuk, if his bad left leg allows him to be effective. Their ability to create havoc in front of Russian netminder Nikolai Khabibulin and get to loose pucks -- keep plays alive down low -- might be the difference between a shot at gold and a disappointing consolation contest.
Meanwhile, Russiaís vaunted attack has stalled, with four goals in their past three contests -- two of which came in the tie with Team USA in the preliminary round. Fetisovís swap of youngster Maxim Afinogenov for veteran Alexei Kovalev on the Alexei Yashin-Andrei Nikolishin line paid immediate and important dividends, as the 22-year old scored the game-winning goal versus the Czech Republic.
But, some of the other outside threats have to be active against the Americans, including the brothers Bure, along with Sergei Samsonov and Ilya Kovalchuk. Against Richter, the puck has to move side-to-side to have a chance to go in -- or at least from the middle to either side, so the wingers have to carry the day offensively if Russia is to prevail.
Team USA has surprised with its defensive acumen. First, the forwards have been fantastic in their pursuit without the puck and second, the blueliners, led by the pair of captain Chris Chelios and Gary Suter, have perfected the less-is-more approach. To a man, the American defense has moved the puck smartly and crisply to the forwards, only joining the attack in select situations. Unselfishness on offense makes the U.S. attack more potent in transition, positioned perfectly to force turnovers and get the puck headed in the other direction with precision.
Russia has looked vulnerable in its zone, yielding the blueline easily and often. Against the Americans, though, their work down low has to be as strong as it was against the Czechs. With Khabibulin in goal, they seem to practice a bend-donít-break philosophy, allowing shots from the outside, while focusing on protecting against put-backs. Vladimir Malakhov, Darius Kasparaitis and Danny Markov have to perform with passion in their man-on-man coverage below the hash marks.
Mike Richter is in top form -- rested and ready. His 33-save performance against Russia in the prelims showed him to have adjusted to the lateral attack favored by the Russians. He did not over-challenge in cutting down the shooters' angles -- insight as to his awareness of his opponents' strengths and tendencies. Yet, Pavel Bure still managed to beat Richter on a cross-ice play. Richterís history of excellence would indicate another astute performance is in the offing.
Russia relies on Khabibulin to cover up for its up-ice offensive risk taking. Still, scoring off the rush wouldnít be anything the Americans should count on. On Khabibulin, the more traffic in front the better, and there is room up top from in tight on rebound opportunities. In other words, think nothing but hard-working goals against Khabibulin if you are Team USA.
Take your pick -- U-S-A, U-S-A, or Russian revenge. Prediction -- Russia in a shootout, with Kovalchuk providing the difference, beating Richter between the pads with a quick flick of the wrists.
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.