American hockey keeps on rolling

Posted: Tuesday, February 19, 2002

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Maybe there is something to this home ice advantage.

Brett Hull got the Americans going with a goal, then set up John LeClair for two more quick goals as the United States -- off to its best start in Olympic hockey since 1980 -- overpowered Belarus 8-1 on Monday.

The United States went 2-0-1, tying Russia 2-2, to win its round-robin pool and gain a favorable quarterfinal matchup Wednesday against Germany. The Americans are 19-0-3 in their last 22 Olympic games on home ice since 1932.

''We feel we can beat any team in this town,'' U.S. forward Jeremy Roenick said. ''We dominated defensively in the first three games. We have a lot more to do in the next three games.''

Nearly all the players the United States had in Nagano in 1998 are back in Salt Lake City. Clearly, though, this is not the same U.S. Olympic hockey team, as the Americans have outscored their first three opponents 16-3.

''The pucks are really going in for us,'' Chris Chelios said.

The Americans, playing with the confidence, rhythm and consistency they lacked during that dismal 1-3 performance in Nagano remembered most for their chair-breaking tantrum, haven't been unbeaten through three games this deep into an Olympics since the Miracle on Ice of 1980.

That Herb Brooks coached both teams does not seem a coincidence. Chelios credits Brooks with establishing a motivational, team-is-everything theme after the players arrived in Salt Lake City last week, dead-tired from a relentless pre-Olympics NHL schedule.

''We've got confidence and momentum,'' said Chelios, who at 40 is the oldest player on the U.S. team. ''We never got any momentum going in Nagano, never got anything started and we struggled throughout. Nobody had any confidence going into the (elimination) game against the Czechs, and it was because nobody had any goals.''

Not a problem in Salt Lake City. The only team that has played better so far is Sweden, which has defeated defending gold medalist the Czech Republic and Canada.

Chelios also said Brooks encouraged considerable input from the players -- an avenue that led Brooks to reunite former Dallas Stars teammates Mike Modano and Brett Hull on a line with LeClair during Saturday's tie with Russia.

Hull responded by scoring the tying goal with 4 1/2 minutes left in that game, just the kind of goal he has scored so often in Stanley Cup playoff games. Then, after journeyman Belarus goalie Andrei Mezin shut out the United States in the first period Monday, Hull got the U.S. offense rolling with a slap-shot goal from the high slot in the opening minute of the second period.

''When he shoots that slap shot, you can't see it,'' Mezin said. ''That's why he's such a big star.''

After scoring, Hull then set up LeClair for consecutive goals within a five-minute span to make it 3-1 and take some of the pressure off goalie Tom Barrasso. Modano also had two assists.

''I was thinking, 'It's about time, now let's go from here,' '' Hull said of his goal. ''Then we got that big lug Johnny pounding them in.''

LeClair, who had three goals in an opening-game 6-0 victory over Finland, had a power play score exactly two minutes after Hull scored with a wrist shot from the lower right circle.

Russia, despite its powerful lineup of NHL stars, was upset 3-1 by Finland. The Finns, led by a goal from captain Teemu Selanne, wound up second in the U.S. group with a 2-1 mark, while the Russians (1-1-1) were third.

In the other group, Canada -- behind a pair of Mario Lemieux goals -- tied the Czechs 3-3. Dominik Hasek stopped 33 shots for the Czechs, who -- like the Canadians -- finished their first three games 1-1-1. And Sweden, the only team to win all three of its opening games, pounded Germany, 7-1.

The other quarterfinal matchups: Finland-Canada, the Czech Republic-Russia and Sweden-Belarus.

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