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  U.S. Hockey Dreams Go Up in Smoke, 6-1

By William Drozdiak
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 24, 1994; Page D1

LILLEHAMMER, Norway, Feb. 23 — The U.S. hockey team's dreams of capturing an Olympic medal for the first time since 1980 were crushed tonight when unbeaten Finland overwhelmed the younger Americans with its passing and skating artistry as it coasted to a 6-1 victory.

The Americans struggled gamely for the first 12 minutes but bungled several scoring opportunities that could have turned the tide. The Finns, who have six players with National Hockey League experience, took advantage of foolish U.S. penalties to convert four out of seven power plays along with a shorthanded goal to clinch their sixth straight triumph.

These Winter Games may mark the end of an Olympic hockey era. The Americans usually have played the role of underdog against quicker and savvier European teams. The 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, may see many more NHL players allowed to compete, which would shift the balance of power to the American and Canadian Olympic teams.

But U.S. Coach Tim Taylor said he believes there are still major hurdles to overcome before a Dream Team hockey tournament becomes a reality. "The Olympics should have athletes dedicated to performing their best, not just taking a vacation to play eight games away from their regular professional season."

For many of the young collegians Taylor selected for this year's team, the proposed shift to professional players in the next Olympics leaves them feeling less than enthusiastic.

"I really have mixed emotions about it," said forward Peter Ciavaglia. "The United States team would lose a lot of the youthful emotion that goes with its underdog status, but it might also be good for the sport by having the very best players in the world compete in the Olympics."

Finland moved ahead to the semifinals to take on Canada, which beat the Czech Republic, 3-2, in overtime. The United States will join other teams knocked out of medal contention to compete for fifth place in the consolation round.

For Taylor, who stressed speed and youthful enthusiasm over brute strength in building a new-look American squad, tonight's loss to the more mature Finns epitomized a frustrating Olympic tournament for the U.S. team that often saw it fall behind and scramble to catch up in the last period of each game. The United States has won only one match against two losses and three ties.

"We never got rolling offensively except against Italy," Taylor said. "We needed to get other teams chasing up. We had moments of brilliance and moments of pressure when we were victimized by our penalties and mistakes. Our youth worked against us in that respect."

The U.S. team started today's game with the same aggressive approach that rolled up five goals in the first 15 minutes Monday in its 7-1 pasting of Italy. The Finns seemed nervous and hesitant as the Americans pushed them back repeatedly on the defensive near their goal.

But Jarmo Myllys, whose masterful goaltending carried Finland to the silver medal in the 1988 Calgary Games, prevented the Americans from taking an early lead with uncanny saves. Brian Rolston, Ted Drury and David Sacco each had tantalizing shots from close in that were blocked by Myllys.

"We managed to keep the puck at their end at the start and we really wanted to get that first goal," Rolston said. "But when we missed our chances and they got the lead, it may have deflated us emotionally."

The Finns finally got untracked after 12 minutes of play when Saku Koivu shoveled in the puck on a rebound after U.S. goalie Garth Snow had blocked a fierce slap shot from the left side by Jere Lehtinen.

Three minutes later, Mika Nieminen drove down the middle on a breakaway, cut sharply to the left and flicked the puck past Snow's outstretched arm to give Finland a 2-0 lead. It was a turning point in the match because the Finns seemed to relax and resume their own game plan rather than reacting to American pressure.

The Americans looked primed to rally early in the second period when Sacco broke the ice by converting a two-on-one break. But the Finns responded with two quick goals to put the game out of reach. Nieminen knocked in a rebound and Hannu Virta nailed a slap shot on a power play. Marko Kiprusov and Janne Ojanen also converted on power plays in the third quarter to close out the scoring.

The lost hope for a medal came as a cruel disappointment to the young American players, who average little more than 22 years of age. "It's a long season when you work so hard for six months and come up with nothing," said Snow, who made 30 saves in tonight's match. "We had a great team and yet we feel like we never really played our best."

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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