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THE OLYMPICS: WINTER GAMES AT ALBERTVILLE : Turmoil or No, They Are Heirs to Success : Hockey: The Unified Team shows no effect of political unrest at home in beating Switzerland, 8-1.

February 09, 1992|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MERIBEL, France — The familiar letters "CCCP" were missing from their jerseys, banished in the political upheaval that has changed the Soviet Union to the Commonwealth of Independent States.

But nothing else was lacking Saturday in the appearance or performance of the Unified Team, as it is now known.

The heirs to the Soviets' Olympic hockey dynasty did their forbearers proud, displaying the same superb passing and strength of purpose that helped them win eight gold medals in the last 10 tournaments. Opening defense of the championship their predecessors won at Calgary in 1988, the Unified Team toyed with their undisciplined Swiss challengers, capitalizing on four power-play opportunities during an 8-1 rout at the Olympic Arena.

Last Tuesday, the Swiss had stunned the Unified Team, 3-0, in the final of the Nissan Cup in Fribourg, Switzerland. The teams were the same Saturday, but so much more was at stake.

"We lost the last game we played against Switzerland, and that upset us a little bit, so we made a thorough preparation for this game," Soviet assistant coach Igor Dmitriev said through a translator. "The coaches set the task for the players to play well in the defense area, and the players handled that task. The result, the score of the game, speaks for itself."

Their defensive play was undeniably solid, permitting the Swiss only nine shots at Mikhail Shtalenkov in the first two periods. Shtalenkov, who plays for Moscow Dynamo, held the Swiss scoreless for the 50 minutes 8 seconds he spent in the nets. Backup goalie Andrei Trefilov, sent in to stay sharp, gave up the only goal when Swiss forward Samuel Balmer lifted a wrist shot into the upper-right corner of the net during a power play, with 7:41 to play.

Impressive as the Unified Team's defensive play was, its offensive forays were dazzling. The top line of Yuri Khmylev, Viacheslav Bykov and Andrei Khomutov accounted for three goals, as did the ostensibly weaker fourth line of Vitali Prokhorov, Igor Boldin and Nikolai Bortchevski. None of the latter three has been drafted by an NHL club, although 11 of their teammates have been.

"Our players were playing against the best team in the tournament," said Swiss Coach Juhani Taminen, from Finland. "We were not up to the task tonight."

It's doubtful any team could have thwarted the passing of Bykov's line, as exemplified on the Unified Team's final goal. Khmylev began the play with a pass from the left circle to defenseman Dmitri Mironov at the blue line, and Mironov found Bykov by the right post for a swift and telling shot. The same was true of Bykov's pass from behind the net on the sixth goal, a pass that found Khomutov.

And there was the opportunistic goal by Prokhorov at 12:16 of the first period, when he took the rebound of a shot by Boldin, skated out from behind the net and tucked the puck inside the left post.

"As you can judge from the result, the changes (in the political system) haven't affected the performance of our players," Dmitriev said. "I think our hockey has a very strong background, irrespective of how many independent teams will remain. I think all teams will have pretty many good players, and they will be able to maintain the good level they have at present."

They no longer maintain their team as a unit--Bykov and Khomutov play in Switzerland--and they no longer maintain the pretense of fielding a team of amateurs. "Now we adopt the professional system, and we are paying them well enough," Dmitriev said. "But so far we are paying them in rubles."

Their currency might not be worth much these days, but their victory was worth watching.

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