Two for the title
U.S. win sets up great golden game against CanadaPosted: Friday February 22, 2002 9:33 PM
Updated: Saturday February 23, 2002 1:46 AM
To win the day, you must carry the play. Team USA understood this and came out with a vengeance. The Russians failed to grasp this concept until the third period.
The Americans came out and shot pucks at Nikolai Khabibulin from everywhere, curious to see if the sheen had come off his game -- only to find his play to be in full brilliance. Bill Guerin finally found twine on the power play on a long rebound from a shot by Brian Rolston.
It was the fifth power-play goal of these Games for the Americans, but the first time Rolston had played the point. He regularly does so as a member of the Boston Bruins, and coach Herb Brooks relied on Rolstonís comfort level and his familiarity in having Bruins teammate Guerin positioned on the off-wing.
Brooks also sought to mark Pavel Bure, the Russian Rocket, with his top defensive pairing of Chris Chelios and Gary Suter. Both of these grumpy graybeards skate well enough to handle Bure in the open ice, and when in the clenches, neither was above making his life miserable. In fact, that stand-up style was pervasive, as the Americans time and again denied Russia puck possession in the neutral zone, taking away their speed before they could generate it. After making the score 1-0, the Americans continued to pressure Russia, aggressively seeking that all-important two-goal advantage. They were unable to do so -- the only objective unattained by Team USA in a marvelously executed first.
They didnít change a thing in the second, however. Khabibulin was magnificent, the only Russian to show up for this tilt. OK, maybe Sergei Fedorov as well -- but only maybe. Besides, who could tell? The first 10 minutes of the second period consisted of nothing but the Americans teeing off on Khabibulin, with the skaters in front of him being virtually invisible and absolutely ineffective.
The only thing the skaters did of note was to take a couple of minor penalties, the second of which proved costly. Team USA scored its second power-play goal of the game on a putback off a rebound originating from a Phil Housley blast from the point. Then, the power play struck again, this time with Housley firing against the grain and Khabibulin looking human, as the puck found space between his body and glove arm. Nothing left to do in the third period for Team USA other than stay the course.
Instead, it looked as if the Americans stayed in the locker room. They stood around and watched as the Russians scored not once but twice in the first six shifts. And the Russians looked like a completely different team, skating with purpose -- able to stretch the ice with their long lead passes through the middle. More than anything technical -- coach Slava Fetisov made some line combination adjustments -- the Russians found the passion button. They played as if they cared.
They almost came all the way back on a power play midway through the period, but for some timely acrobatics by the heretofore inactive Mike Richter. That sequence was as close as they would come, leaving Russia to forever live with and ponder its inexplicable two-period slumber. Too bad, too. The action in the third is what most people expected from the outset. Who knows -- a full game of emotion might have meant a shot at gold for the Russians.
Still, the Americans survived the Russians best while enduring their worst period of the tournament -- earning the right to go for gold. Now, in this North American final, expect both Team Canada and Team USA to bring their best -- from the opening faceoff to the final buzzer.
Goaltender: Khabibulinís fine work was all Russia had going for it through 40 minutes. He was prepared for a monumental battle and played with pride from the outset. Kudos to Richter for coming up with the necessary saves with the game on the line, despite not seeing much action through two periods.
Defenseman: Just shy of his 38th birthday, Housley scored his first-ever Olympic goal, while assisting on another. His decision-making ability on the power play was one of the reasons Brooks and Team USA general manager Craig Patrick added him to the roster. That insight paid dividends tonight.
Forward: Rolston was everywhere in this game, playing in all situations. He was good on the forecheck early and likewise late on the penalty kill. Team USA has bigger names up front, but they donít advance without the work of Rolston, Guerin and Scott Young.
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.