U.S. Men's Hockey off to fast start

Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Most of them pulled into town on Thursday morning still feeling the effects of the NHL games they'd played the previous night.

"A lot of them were running on fumes,'' observed Herb Brooks, coach of the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team.

They had one practice Thursday night and a team meeting later that evening. They did some light skating on Friday morning, then on Friday night found enough gas to put on a most impressive Olympic tournament opening.

John LeClair, who ranks only No. 4 in scoring with the Philadelphia Flyers, scored a hat trick, and Nashville goalie Mike Dunham -- a surprise starter when Mike Richter of the Rangers needed a rest -- recorded the first American Olympic shutout since 1992 as the U.S. steamrolled Finland 6-0 Friday in their opening game of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

To be sure, the Fins, Czechs, Russians, Swedes and Canadians all faced the same time crunch as did the American NHL stars.

But some teams recovered better than others. Sweden, most notably, put it all together and jumped on Canada -- despite playing before a large, supportive Canadian crowd -- in a 5-2 romp Friday. The defending champion Czech Republic also had little trouble in beating German 3-0.

Add the United States to that strong-start category as well.

The Americans, who started slowly and never did find high gear four years ago in Nagano, outshot the Fins 13-4 in the first period. And though the first 20 minutes went scoreless, three second-period goals started the avalanche, and Finland eventually was buried beneath a mound of 39 U.S. shots to its 23.

"It was a great game to build on,'' said Dunham, who was expected to sit out the late-night Saturday game against Russia.

"We certainly want to get better as the tournament goes along, and we certainly need to get more comfortable with each other,'' Dunham added. "But if you've got to build on a game, this is the one to use.''

The contrast to the start in Nagano was dramatic.

Four years ago, LeClair never found the net as the Americans went 1-2 in pool play, then lost to the Czechs 4-1 in the quarterfinals. But Friday night, the player who thought his career might be over after major back surgery in October, 2000 lit the lamp three times on a rebound of a Brett Hull shot, a power play nubber that rolled up the arm of Fins goalie Jani Hurme, and a virtual layup off a slick crossing pass from Hull.

"When you participate in the Olympics, you want to do something, make a mark,'' LeClair said. "For me to get some goals and get some confidence, hopefully that will carry on into the tournament.''

That was the sentiment of the entire American team after the shutout in the opener.

"We hardly expected to have a 6-0 win,'' said San Jose defenseman Gary Suter. "I know I was just hoping to play good defensively, figuring we had enough firepower that the goals would take care of themselves.

"But in the first game of the Olympics, you've got to start out strong, and we had a solid effort in all areas.''

Added Boston forward Bill Guerin, who closed out the scoring: "We all had jitters in that first period, but then we settled down and got into our game. It was a big confidence builder, but we also realize what's in front of us. It starts with a good Russian team, and we'll have to be even better then.''

To be sure, the late-night Saturday matchup with Russia promised to be yet another learning experience for the American pros.

Playing on an Olympic rink that is larger than they use in the NFL, and playing without the red line that limits long, play-making passes, the Americans must adjust to a bigger, more open game that comes more naturally to the Europeans.

"Those teams know how to throw the puck around on this big ice, and when they get you leaning the wrong way, they zap you,'' Brooks said.

"Our team will be a work in progress,'' Brooks added. "I really believe we'll get better in time, and it starts with the Soviet Union -- excuse me, the Russians.''

Old habits are hard to break. Time has changed the political face of the former Soviet Union, as well as the composition of the former Red Army team that once dominated the hockey world until Brooks engineered the historical "Miracle on Ice'' in 1980.

The Saturday night meeting of the two nations no longer carries the same historical animosities, but still promised to be a major event.

"No matter what happens, that rivalry will still be there,'' LeClair predicted. "Especially with all the memories of 1980 being brought back at this Olympics. It's going to be a special game, a big challenge.''

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