CALGARY, Canada — Staying true to the cow town spirit of these Winter Olympics, the United States hockey team staged a shoot-out in the Saddledome Monday night. That may have been a great way to survive in the Wild, Wild West, but on the Big Sheet--which is what they call the expanded ice surface used in international hockey--too often you wind up shooting yourself in the foot.
That's what happened to Team USA, which riddled Czechoslovakia with three goals on its first three shots en route to a 3-0 lead six minutes into the game, then went down in a hail of Czech cross fire, 7-5.
The Czechs broke a 5-5 tie with a short-handed goal by Igor Liba with 5:29 to play, then iced the Americans with another short-handed goal in the last 9 seconds, this one a 175-foot shot by team captain Dusan Pasek into an empty net.
"Can you imagine being 2-0 after your first two games?" said Team USA goalie Mike Richter. "We would have had a whole lot of momentum that would have snowballed.
"It came so close to happening. It's a little bit of a shock."
Now, instead of the virtual free pass into the medal round it would have gotten by beating the Czechs, Team USA will barely have time to reload before the Soviet Union rolls into view Wednesday night. The Soviets, are 2-0 after beating Austria, 8-1.
It's too late for Team USA to throw up the barricades, even though Coach Dave Peterson acknowledged that the only way to survive against teams like the Czechs and Soviets is to take cover.
"I know the correct way to shut the Czechs down is to play close to the vest, play defensively," he said. "But it's hard to do that without a lot of maturity.
"Is it better to do that and get picked apart, or go after them, play run and gun? We chose to go that route, and it didn't work out."
It was more out of necessity than choice that Team USA didn't go conservative, even after going ahead, 4-1, on a goal by Dave Snuggerud from behind the net less than five minutes into the second period. The Czechs exposed the cracks in the American defense--and in the nets, where Richter almost certainly will be replaced by backup Chris Terreri for the Soviet game, Peterson said.
"The world will not end because we lost a hockey game," Peterson said. "This team is not quite 22 years old (on average). No one said we wouldn't make any mistakes. They're youthful, enthusiastic and they make mistakes."
None was more critical than the one that came only 19 seconds after Czech defenseman Miloslav Horava was whistled off for holding after he grabbed Lane MacDonald's stick and pulled him down at 14:12 of the third period. Less than two minutes earlier, Pasek had pulled his team into a tie by flicking home a rebound of his own slap shot for a power-play goal that had matched the one scored by Scott Fusco, Team USA center, at 6:27.
Team USA, which already had scored two power-play goals against Czech goalie Jaromir Sindel--who replaced starter Dominik Hasek when it became 3-0--was bent on getting another when the puck popped loose near the left point and directly to Pasek, who was hovering on the other side of the blue line just waiting to make a break. As one USA defenseman, Brian Leetch, retreated, the other, converted forward Scott Young, gave chase from the other side of the rink.
With two players converging on him, Liba casually flicked a pass to Pasek, who was trailing the play and had only open ice ahead of him. Liba waited for Richter to commit, then flipped the puck over the goaltender's left shoulder.
"The locker room was filled with a lot of apologies after the game," Richter said. "But he (Young) didn't do it out of laziness. The situation occured, and Liba beat both him and me."
Corey Millen, the '84 veteran of Sarajevo who scored the first Team USA goal and assisted on the third, said it would be unfair to single out Young, a 20-year-old Massachusetts kid who almost didn't get to play in the Olympics after being disqualified from last year's world championships for failing a drug test. The offending substance? A nasal spray.
"It was just an unfortunate situation," Millen said. "It was a situation where the puck got out of our zone and Scotty didn't realize the guy was breaking down the left side."
It was the kind of breakdown Peterson has seen before.
"We should have shifted gears and sat on the lead," Peterson said. "But when we do that a little bit, we get in more trouble.
"Obviously in a 5-5 tie, that's a brutal goal to give up. But kids make mistakes."
So, too, do referees, according to Peterson, who saved his choicest remarks for Swedish referee Kjell Lind, who put Team USA in the position of having to play short-handed two men when he whistled Kevin Miller for hooking at the 10- minute mark of the third period, and followed that 85 seconds later with a slashing call against Lane MacDonald.