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Swedish stunner

Belarus pulls upset for the ages against talented Swedes

Posted: Wednesday February 20, 2002 6:52 PM
Updated: Wednesday February 20, 2002 6:53 PM

 
SALT LAKE CITY -- Belarusí 4-3 upset of Finland was the greatest upset in international hockey since Kazakhstan, playing with borrowed sticks, buried Canada 8-3 at the 1998 world junior tournament, and the biggest surprise in Olympic hockey history since Herb Brooks' American college kids knocked off the Soviet Union in Lake Placid 22 years ago.

Sweden had been the class of the Olympics, winning its three round-robin games with skill and daring. Meanwhile, Belarus had lost four straight, including its three preliminary matches against the big boys by a combined score of 22-6. The denouement against Sweden had the requisite charm and goofiness of all miracle games, including a winning goal that was scored from the adjacent zip code; an incredulous coach, Vladimir Krikunov, who lost a bottle of cognac because he bet that this game would be the last for Belarus; and a group hug for the ages in the far corner as the crestfallen Swedes stared in disbelief from their own zone.

At a team meeting on Tuesday, Ruslan Salei of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the only current NHLer on the team, said the Belarussian players invoked the spirit of the 1980 U.S. win and again screamed about Lake Placid as they skated off. Good for Belarus. But the nation of 10 million is a minor player in the rarified world of elite international hockey, a satellite that won't change the world order with one fluke win. The proper question in the big picture is not how you say "Do you believe in miracles?" in Belarussian, but how you say "Spit the bit" in Swedish.

Team Sweden proved itself the greatest choke artists since dancer Isadora Duncan got her scarf stuck in the car door. The Swedes lost their nerve, abandoned their system and played without a hint of courage, except for captain Mats Sundin.

This is not the first time it has happened to the most conspicuously skilled team in the tournament. Sweden fainted in the 1998 Olympic quarterfinals in a 2-1 loss to Finland during which they fiddled for 55 minutes -- think Max Von Sydow playing chess with the devil on the beach in Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal -- before going on the attack.

The 2002 team wasn't going to make the same mistake, arriving in Salt Lake with the so-called Torpedo, a 2-2-1 system that was suited to the geometry of the 200-by-100-foot international rink, which Sweden proved to everyone's satisfaction during the no-pressure games of the round robin.

Then at the first sign of trouble against an overmatched opponent that was standing up at the blue line with four defenders, Team Sweden abandoned the zone-stretching long passes and switched to some NHL-style dump-and-chase. Indeed, Sweden, trailing only 2-1, had defensemen dump the puck into the zone the first four times they had it in the second period.

A team with conviction would have buried Belarus in the third after Sundin stripped the puck and scored on a breakaway to tie the score almost eight minutes into the period, but the Swedes backed off. "They weren't hungry for the goal," Belarus goaile Andrei Mezin said. Mighty Sweden looked like it was playing for overtime.

The signature moment will be the 80-foot prayer that Vladimir Kopat directed at the net, a shot that Swedish goalie Tommy Salo played like a man trying to shoo a wasp at a picnic. Salo, a dead ringer for The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, stopped Paul Kariya's final penalty shot when Sweden won the gold medal in the pre-NHL days of 1994; his contribution has been warmly remembered there. Now, however, the Olympic rings will be a noose around his neck for the rest of his career. The shot deflected off his mask, landed in the crease and trickled in 148 seconds from the end, a gaffe of Bill Bucknerian proportions. Salo was sent off for dope testing after the game. That was a random choice, incidentally.

But the play that will be buried under the opprobrium to be heaped on Salo was a clunker made by the best defenseman in the world. Nicklas Lidstrom played the third Belarus goal like a neophyte. After a brutal giveaway by Mattias Ohlund, Lidstrom, who normally is superb with his stick, neither tried a poke check nor attempted to block the shot by Andrei Kovalev. Lidstrom was caught halfway on that goal, stuck in a defenseman's purgatory.

The hell does not start until the Swedes try to explain this one to the folks back home.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Farber is in Utah covering the Olympic hockey competition for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.

 
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