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Saturday, February 23, 2002
Belarus' underdog run doesn't net a medal

Associated Press


WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Russia's latest Olympic medal won't be a highlight in the nation's rich hockey history.

Russian Hockey Team
From top left, Sergei Federov, Darius Kasparitis, Alexei Kovalev, and Nikolai Khabibulin pose with their bronze medals.

Slava Fetisov expected his team to earn more than bronze -- and the coach still isn't happy Russia finished its Olympic run one day early.

Alexei Kovalev had two goals and an assist as Russia won the bronze medal in Olympic hockey with a 7-2 victory over Belarus on Saturday.

With an uninspired but productive performance against the tournament's most surprising underdog, the Russians claimed their 12th medal in Olympic hockey -- a record their nation will share with Canada after Sunday's gold-medal game.

Still, it was a disappointing finish for Russia, which won silver in Nagano and gold in three of the previous four Olympics. Russia has eight hockey gold medals in all, more than any nation. A 3-2 loss to the United States on Friday night cost the Russians a chance to play for another gold.

"It's an honor to be part of that tradition," said goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who made 21 saves to finish with a .930 save percentage for the tournament. "We knew we couldn't go home empty. We couldn't lose to Belarus, but it was a tough game for us. We spent a lot of emotions last night. It was tough to get up for this game."

Most observers thought Russia's loss to the Americans was caused by the latest in a series of slow starts by Russia's phenomenal group of forwards, who were outshot and outskated over the first two periods. Russia had another slow start against Belarus, but picked things up in plenty of time.

But Fetisov, in the tenor of the Russian Olympic delegation's complaints about fairness in Salt Lake City, blamed the loss partially on Bill McCreary, the Canadian NHL referee. When asked on Friday night whether he would have pulled his team out of the game in the event of a rumored Russian boycott, Fetisov declined to answer.

Fetisov repeated his complaints on Saturday after reading a letter from International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel condemning Fetisov's comments. Fetisov claimed he has video evidence that McCreary's calls in the second period unjustly favored the Americans.

All games in the tournament featuring more than 50 percent NHL players were officiated by an NHL staffer, in accordance with the league's agreement with the IIHF.

"He missed a few calls on the U.S. team," Fetisov said Saturday. "In a competition like that, the refereeing should be neutral. They made the agreement (to use NHL referees) before, and we're kind of hostages of this situation."

The Russians took out their frustrations on Belarus in a physical game between two teams representing nations with a long history of dislike. Belarus is a former Soviet republic.

"We hate those guys. Put it in the paper," Fetisov barked earlier in the week when asked what he thought about facing Belarus.

In truth, Khabibulin trained with the Belarusian team last summer, and Sergei Fedorov is among several Russian players who once trained in Minsk. Fetisov and Belarus coach Vladimir Krikunov warmly shook hands afterward.

"We're very happy about our performance," Krikunov said of his team, which wasn't even favored to advance from its qualifying round group. "All of our players are in a very good mood right now. I think they've reached their maximum, not only for these games, but maybe for their whole lives."

Belarus, which upset Sweden 4-3 Wednesday to earn an improbable berth in medal play, held Russia to a 2-2 tie until early in the second period, when Oleg Tverdovsky and Pavel Datsyuk scored 23 seconds apart.

Darius Kasparaitis -- who has one goal in 58 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season -- Pavel Bure and Maxim Afinogenov also scored for Russia, which scored 13 of its 19 goals in the Olympics during its two games against Belarus.

The rest of the time, Russia's forwards failed to form any type of cohesive unit. Bure, who led the Nagano games with nine goals, had just two in Salt Lake City -- and the last was a meaningless tally late in the third period Saturday.

Belarus tied it 2-2 just 1:15 into the second period when Dmitry Dudik slipped behind the Russian defense for a breakaway, but Tverdovsky scored his first goal of the Olympics moments later, and Datsyuk followed with his first as Russia rolled to five unanswered goals.

The game was frightening to at least two Russian players' NHL clubs. Alexei Zhamnov limped to the bench with a painful hip injury, and Kovalev was hit in the face by Belarus goalie Sergei Shabanov's stick.