Hockey final no miracle, but U.S. silver still shines

Worn down by Russia semi, `we can hold heads high'

Winter Olympics Salt Lake City 2002

February 25, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah - In the end, the impressive run to the gold-medal game by the 2002 men's U.S. hockey team didn't turn out to be the sequel to the 1980 team's "Miracle on Ice."

But losing to Canada, 5-2, last night wasn't anything to be embarrassed about either, especially when Team USA was down only one goal with four minutes to play.

"The U.S. has nothing to be ashamed of," Canada forward Brendan Shanahan said. "We knew coming in that both teams were winners. They have a great hockey club."

Great, perhaps, but certainly a little worn down. Though the United States earned a top seed in the quarterfinals with its impressive 2-0-1 record in round-robin play, Canada (1-1-1) actually ended up with the easier road to the gold-medal game when Belarus upset Sweden in the quarterfinal. The U.S. team needed an emotional 3-2 victory over Russia to get there, and in the third period yesterday the Americans didn't have much left in their tanks.

"I just don't think we had the legs out there," U.S. coach Herb Brooks said. "Sometimes that's how a tournament goes. I can't for the life of me understand why the seeding works the way it does in the semifinals, why the top seed doesn't play the lowest remaining seed. But I don't want to sound like sour grapes here. Canada did a real good job defensively against us. I would have just liked to have better legs."

The U.S. team didn't lose because of lack of effort. Things were never more dire for Team USA in the tournament than when Canada earned a two-man advantage midway in the second period thanks to high-sticking penalties by Brett Hull and Aaron Miller. Already leading 2-1, Canada was on the verge of putting the Americans away. But for a gut-wrenching 1:08, Team USA held off Canada with only three defenders and goalie Mike Richter, including an open-net miss by Mario Lemieux.

"That's not something I've done too many times in my career," Lemieux said.

Momentum seemed to take a major swing five minutes later when the U.S. team tied the game at 2 on a shot by Brian Rafalski. But by then, the Americans were physically spent. Joe Sakic beat Richter right before the end of the period to put Canada back up 3-2 going into the locker room.

"Even though they got ahead, we fought back," said U.S. defenseman Phil Housley. "It was just one of those things; they got some breaks and got a couple of pucks to go in."

Team USA had one last great chance when Canada's Steve Yzerman was called for tripping in the 53rd minute, giving the hosts a power-play chance. Hull got off a good-looking slap shot at Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur, but Brodeur made the most important save of his 31 on the night, getting a pad down just in time.

Yzerman popped out of the penalty box shortly after, and threaded the puck to Jarome Iginla, who beat Richter for his second goal of the game. Sakic added another late to put the game away.

"Silver kind of hurts right now, but we still have a lot to be proud of," said Bill Guerin. "We know that we can hold our heads high."

Said Jeremy Roenick: "We're very, very proud of our accomplishment. A lot of people weren't picking us to do as well as we did. Today was a dream matchup against a dream opponent, and it was a real pleasure to be involved in a gold-medal game against a great team like Canada."

The loss wasn't just the first loss on home soil since 1932, it was the first loss Brooks has ever experienced as U.S. Olympic coach. Though he didn't rule out coming back to coach the team in 2006, he said it's not likely.

"I'd love to get the call, but you'd have to ask Ms. Brooks," he said. "I love USA hockey, and we have a lot of great coaches in this country. I'd like to see them maybe get a chance at it next time around."

Either way, with a silver medal, the United States has clearly erased the memories of Nagano, Japan, four years ago, when the team finished sixth and embarrassed itself when three unnamed players trashed their Olympic Village dorms after a loss to the Czech Republic.

"We have an excellent group of guys and it was a shame what happened last time, both on and off the ice," Richter said. "I think this time we represented our country well. We were honest about our effort and we conducted ourselves well off and on the ice. For that, we're proud."

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