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U.S. Men's Hockey Team Gets Lost in Space, 4-2

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 1998; Page C1

 Mats Sundin and Mattias Norstrom Celebrate Goal
 Sweden's Mats Sundin (left) celebrates his third-period goal with teammate Mattias Norstrom as the United States' Adam Deadmarsh skates away.
(Hans Deryk/AP)
NAGANO, Feb. 13 — As the United States's men's hockey team ate a group dinner tonight, players reminded each other that this is only the round-robin part of the Olympic tournament, that the only thing an opening 4-2 loss to Sweden could affect was their seeding in next week's quarterfinals.

The Americans reminded each other that their opponent Saturday was Belarus, a qualifying team Canada pounded into submission, 5-0. But even the possibility of a 1-1 record by Sunday could not obscure the truth: They need to learn from their first game if they are going to be competitive in the rest of the tournament.

Most importantly, they need to get a better grip on the international ice surface, which at Big Hat arena is 13 feet wider and a foot and a half shorter than an NHL rink. The nets are also farther out from the boards, giving more room behind the goal for playmakers to work — if they know what they are doing. If they misjudge the space, however, a perfect pass can turn into a giveaway that costs a team at the other end of the ice.

 Ron Wilson: "We lost against one of the best teams in the world, but it was the first game, and that doesn't mean too much." (Joel Richardson/The Post)
"It's tough just getting the angles down," U.S. winger Brett Hull said. "You're out there thinking you're in a good spot when you're really just a little too far away. They knew what they were doing out there, and we seemed almost scattered around."

Having learned to play hockey on international-size rinks, Sweden looked positively cozy on the ice — despite a roster loaded with players who also regularly play in the NHL. Swedish players were able to duck around checks, and superior skating speed allowed them to twist and turn through all that open space.

The U.S. players looked comfortable in the first period, as if they had been set free from the shackles of the NHL's usual defensive style and were going to skate so far and fast they might never go back. They took a 2-1 lead into the second period — all three goals were scored within 100 seconds of each other — but as the Swedes settled into a neutral zone trap, the U.S. players grew frustrated. Instead of being patient with the puck, they pressed, and some defensemen pinched irresponsibly.

Forwards didn't go to the net as often as they had planned, minimizing the U.S. size advantage. Players also complained they had a hard time playing pucks off the boards the way they are used to.

"We're not Europeans and we don't want to play like Europeans," U.S. forward Tony Amonte said. "We want to grind in the corners, and it's tough on this big sheet of ice. It's tough to even have a collision because there's so much room out there."

Sweden scored twice in the second period, with Peter Forsberg (two assists) making liquid passes to set up scoring chances. The United States made something of a comeback effort in the third period, but hopes of tying the score were squelched when Mats Sundin wove through the U.S. defense and shot the puck past goaltender Mike Richter on his stick side.

"We went into this game thinking the Swedes were one of the best teams here," said U.S. Coach Ron Wilson, who coaches the Washington Capitals in the NHL. "And we came out of it maybe thinking they were the best team."

Sweden defenseman Calle Johansson of the Capitals didn't score any goals, although Coach Kent Forsberg immediately invoked his name when listing the game's top players. Johansson had missed nine of Washington's games with a knee injury before the Olympic break, so at the beginning of the game his timing appeared a bit off. He quickly recovered, however, and appeared to be skating well with his new brace.

"It feels good to win, although it's a long tournament and this was only the first game," Johansson said. "It's always easier to work when you win instead of losing. You don't have to look in the rearview mirror all the time; you can look ahead."

Wilson noted that his players came into the first period bounding with energy, excited finally to be participating in the Olympics after more than a year of build-up. While the atmosphere was certainly not as frenzied as an NHL arena during a playoff series, the 9,985 fans in attendance, some with painted faces and more waving flags, did their best to fill Big Hat with enthusiasm.

"There's not a lot that really gets me nervous, but on the first couple of shifts, I had dry-mouth and all that," Hull said. "There's a lot of pressure on us."

Before each period, a song that sounded like a cross between heavy metal and a Gregorian chant screamed over the speakers, telling fans it was time to "face off, face off, face off." A public address announcer also tried to get the crowd involved in "the big circle," which American and Swedish fans finally figured out was another name for the Wave.

The crowd's excitement seemed to energize the U.S. players, although after racing out in the first period, fatigue may have set in.

"We had a very good start; maybe we burned a little too much fuel in the first period," Wilson said. "We'll have to regroup and reassess the way we play.

"We lost against one of the best teams in the world, but it was the first game, and that doesn't mean too much. You have to win the quarterfinal, the fourth game of this tournament. It does not make sense to win the first three games and then lose the fourth one."

The United States will continue round-robin play through Monday (Sunday night EST) when it faces Canada. Then the eight teams in the main draw will be seeded into single-elimination quarterfinal pairings, with the highest-ranked team from one pool playing the lowest-ranked team from the other.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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