US-Canada showdown set while Russians angered again
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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, Feb 22 (AFP) - Canada and the United States advanced to an Olympic gold medal ice hockey showdown while Russia's anger boiled over at having only North American referees for "Dream Team" playoff matches.
Aided by three power play goals following penalties whistled on Russians, the United States beat Russia 3-2 here Friday to book a Sunday finals date with Canada, which routed Belarus 7-1 in the other semi-final.
Just as Russians had backed off a threat to boycott the Olympics over figure skating judgements and cross country doping tests, up flared objections to having Olympic playoffs officiated only by National Hockey League referees, all US or Canadian men.
"It seems like it's designed to get Canada and the United States into the final and with NHL referees," Russian coach-general manager Slava Fetisov said.
"I know there's a big disagreement with the Olympic Committee. I've got no problem with NHL referees. But they live here. It's a crucial situation. It's human nature."
McCreary, the NHL referee who officiated the 1998 Olympic men's hockey final, whistled six penalties for 12 minutes against Russia and four penalties for eight minutes against the Americans.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and the nation's Olympic officials have crtiticized a stipulation of the NHL-Olympic deal mandating NHL officials handle all "Dream Team" games.
"I was astonished to learn that the IOC signed a contract with the NHL according to which only NHL referees could act as referees in the Olympic Games' ice hockey championship," Putin said in Moscow. "How can they guarantee a correct and impartial judgement if they live and work in North America?"
McCreary, an Canadian with 20 years as an NHL official, was confronted by several Russians after the game. Fetisov was especially unhappy over a third-period hit on defender Igor Kravtchouk that brought no penalty.
"We played the whole third period in their zone and one penalty," Fetisov said. "They're not going to call it. There's not much we can do about it now.
"Definitely they didn't help us, that's for sure."
McCreary will referee the gold medal game with Canadian NHL official Mike Cvik and Finland's Antti Hamalainen as linesmen.
Russian Olympic officials could not have been happy with the US team seizing a 3-0 lead as Bill Guerin, Scott Young and Phil Housley scored on power plays.
Russia pulled within 3-2 after Alexei Kovalev scored 11 seconds into the third period and Vladimir Malakhov swatted a slapshot past US goaltender Mike Richter 3:10 later. Richter had seen only 11 shots in the first two periods.
The Russians nearly equalized on a power play of their own midway through the third period after US star Brett Hull was sent off for tripping. A follow shot clanged off the crossbar and McCreary ruled it no goal. Replays agreed but Fetisov felt it should have been reviewed.
"Every controversial moment has to be reviewed," he said. "Since there was no bell ring from up above, there was no goal."
Russia pulled goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who made 46 saves, for an extra attacker in the final seconds but could not score the tying goal.
"The refereeing, all in all, was quite fair," Khabibulin said. "We should not look at fault with the refereeing."
Asked what he would have done had Olympic officials ordered the team not to play the match, Fetisov replied, "The game is in the past. Let's leave it in the past."
The showdown came on the 22nd anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice" victory by a group of US college players over the mighty Soviet Union at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics -- the last time a US men's hockey team won Olympic gold.
Belarus stunned Sweden 4-3 in the quarter-finals, but Canada's millionaires served notice early they would not take the giant-killers lightly, denying them a first shot on goal for more than 10 minutes.
"It was important for us to win by a huge margin," Canadian captain Mario Lemieux said. "Our goal was to start fast, get a three-goal lead and discourage them. And we did."