WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah Continuing what is rapidly becoming a less-surprising run through the 2002 Winter Olympics, the United States men's hockey team provided something that surely could not have been expected in a 10-day tournament featuring the best talent in the world.
Next they'll bring back a little familiar delirium.
Team USA outplayed Germany from the opening face-off Wednesday, taking a 5-0 victory that was more one-sided than that and setting up its second game against Russia in five nights. This one will come in the semifinals and 22 years to the day after a younger, less-polished U.S. team scored the nation's greatest Olympic victory against the then-Soviet Union at Lake Placid.
Wednesday's win also put the U.S. within one victory of its first medal since 1980 and took them beyond the one-game elimination phase of the tournament.
"We came into (Wednesday) as if it was a Game 7, because we're all familiar with those back home,'' said USA forward Mike Modano, who had two assists and continued to click with former Dallas Stars teammate Brett Hull. "If you lose, you go home and the winners go on to Friday.''
Two hours before they came to the E Center, the Americans saw how short and unpredictable that trip could be.
In the early quarter-final game Wednesday, lightly regarded Belarus stunned Sweden, which had been the best team in the tournament through the preliminary round. After watching that game, the U.S. started strongly against Germany, although that was not visible by the 1-0 score through one period.
Even with nine minutes of power-plays and two 5-on-3 advantages, the U.S. out-shot Germany just 12-9 in the period and Jeremy Roenick's half-whiffed one-timer 13 minutes in was the only shot that got past German goalie Marc Seliger in the first.
But the Americans scored three goals in just over two minutes midway through the second period and spent the second half of the game playing in a quickly emptying arena.
"I'm still shaking my head over that one,'' Hull said of the Belarus upset. "I think it was an advantage for us because we went into the dressing room thinking, don't take anybody lightly.''
That might have possible after the U.S. played its strongest game of the tournament in its final preliminary Monday, beating Belarus 8-1.
But when the quarter-final match-up was announced, German coach Hans Zach quickly assured the Americans wouldn't be looking ahead when he suggested that the U.S. shouldn't have won the gold in 1980 because his team should have beaten them in the quarters, a game the U.S. won 4-2.
After a first period that stayed closer and tenser than it should have, though, the Americans took control of the game in the second. With 10:18 remaining in the period, Roenick fired a pass across the goalmouth on a 2-on-1 to Tony Amonte, who directed the puck past Seliger. Just 32 seconds later, John LeClair collected a rebound at the right post and had time to gather the puck and flip it over the fallen goaltender for his sixth goal of the Olympics.
Hull made it 5-0 at the 11:47 mark when the puck came to him off the end boards and he sent a backhander between his own feet and into the net. It was Hull's fourth goal of the tournament, all coming after he was put on a line with Modano midway through Team USA's second game here. It also gave a team that had won its first two games in Salt Lake on defense 13 goals in its last five periods.
"We're coming together. We're very solid now,'' said defenseman Phil Housley. "Everybody's patting each other on the back and thinking like a team.''
"These are very sophisticated professional athletes,'' added U.S. coach Herb Brooks, "and they're playing like a bunch of little boys just happy to be out there.''
Friday's semifinal game will be a flashback to the reason some of them are.
The USA-Russia game in 1980 was the biggest event in American hockey, triggering a growth in the sport that has continued to today. Most of the players on this U.S. team were not yet teenagers when a group of overmatched American students beat what is believed by some to be the greatest hockey team ever assembled.
That upset had already been engrained in these Olympics, with the 1980 team lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremonies and it being continuously mentioned that the U.S. has one the gold medal in hockey the last two times the Games were played in this country.
But, even with the same charmed coach and an eerily considental date, these American players won't be counting on anything other than their ability Friday.
"I don't believe in fate,'' said Hull. "I think if you play well and you play hard enough to win, good things are going to happen.''
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