Posted: Fri February 20, 1998 at 11:49 PM ET
By Jim Kelley, CNN/SI
NAGANO, Japan (CNN/SI) -- Whatever the future holds for Dominik Hasek and the rest of the Czech National team in these Olympics, it's hard to imagine it can get any better than this.
Hasek and his countrymen have beaten Canada, the must-win team of these Olympics, 2-1.
They did it in the most spectacular and pressure-filled way possible. An Olympic shootout.
"For sure it was the biggest pressure ever in my hockey career,'' said the Buffalo Sabres' goaltender. "I don't like shootouts but I understand them. I would prefer the NHL style with overtime, but this is the Olympic way."
The Olympic way to settle ties is 10 minutes of overtime and then a five-shot shootout. In this case, the winner goes to the gold medal game, the loser goes home. For 70 minutes, it's a game either team can win or lose. But in the shootout it's Patrick Roy vs. Dominik Hasek.
A goalie's game to win or lose.
"We were very confident,'' said Robert Reichel, the Czech forward who scored the deciding goal for the Czech Republic. "You've got Dom behind you and you're going into a shootout. He's the best breakaway goalie in the world. I'm so happy for him. He was there for us and he deserves to be in the finals.''
Simply put, no player here deserves it more.
The Czechs are not the best team in these Olympics. They admit that, but they knew if they worked hard, played defense and got a goal when it mattered, Hasek could take them the rest of the way. He is their inspiration and they are willing to play as hard as any team in this tournament because they know how far he can take them.
"We felt comfortable because of him,'' said Martin Rucinsky. "I've tried to score on him in practice every day and I can't do it. Usually in a situation like that (breakaway) I score about 50 percent of the time, but I couldn't beat him. Not once. It couldn't have been a good feeling for them (the Canadians) going into a shootout and facing Dominik Hasek, I can tell you that.''
All else being equal, great players give you the chance to win. With Hasek on the ice for a shootout, the Czechs, who played brilliantly in front of Hasek through regulation and in overtime, knew they could score a goal. All they needed was for Hasek not to let any in.
First up was Theo Fleury, Hasek forced him wide. Then Ray Bourque came out. He went high, but Hasek got a piece of it and knocked it over the top of the net. After that it was Joe Nieuwendyk. Hasek forced him wide, too, and the puck rolled off the blade of his stick.
Then it was Eric Lindros. He had Hasek down and seemingly at his mercy, but Hasek, who had come out to try and take the puck off his stick, rolled with him and the shot hit the outside of the post.
Just about everyone in the building was expecting Wayne Gretzky would come out next, but Canada coach Marc Crawford, playing without Joe Sakic and Paul Kariya and mindful of the fact Gretzky is not considered a good breakaway shooter, sent Mike Shanahan instead.
The Detroit Red Wings' forward said he was ready to face the challenge.
"He had been very aggressive coming out on the shots,'' Shanahan said. "I tried to pump him, get him down and walk in around him and get a shot off, but it didn't happen the way I hoped.''
Not even close.
Hasek said he felt he got a piece of Shanahan's shot, but he wasn't sure that it was going to stay out of the net. There are no rebounds in this kind of a situation, but the puck isn't blown dead until it's ruled a miss or the puck stops short of crossing the line. Hasek said he was afraid he had left an opening under his arm and he wasn't certain the puck wasn't going to squeeze in until he saw Shanahan turn away in despair.
"I am so happy I can't believe it, we beat a great team, maybe one of the best in the tournament, but I felt we deserved to win,'' Hasek said. "My teammates played very well in front of me and the one goal they got was a lucky goal, (it deflected in off Buffalo Sabres defenseman Richard Smehlik) or it would not have gone in. Even in the overtime I thought we were going to win because we were playing so well.''
There are still no guarantees that the Czechs will win the gold now, (they play the Russians Sunday) but they can do no worse than silver, something the U.S., Canadians and Swedes can not achieve. They have the opportunity to win and that's more of a chance than most anyone had given them at the start of this thing.
Hasek is the reason for it.
In the five games he's played to date, he's allowed just six goals. None against Finland, two against the Kazjakstans, two against Russia and now one against the U.S. and Canada. If there are any he's unhappy about, it is the two against Russia, both of which he believes he should have stopped.
He now gets a second chance.
"From the beginning of the tournament, from the very first practice, we've had a sense of our mission and what Dominik Hasek means to us,'' said Czech coach Slavomir Lener. "From the very first practice, from the very first shot, he has challenged every shooter, every potential scorer in practice. Suddenly, all the players realized that, 'hey, we have to go for it.' "
A great player having a great run on the world's greatest stage.
How could they not?
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