NAGANO, Japan — In a tournament designed to showcase the NHL's brightest stars, the U.S. team turned out to be a bunch of dim bulbs and Canada's lights were turned out by goaltender Dominik Hasek.
That has left the Czech Republic and Russia, two teams originally ranked among the field's lesser lights, to play for the gold medal Sunday at Big Hat arena. This meeting of two former hockey powers who have fallen on hard times was unexpected, but the potential for one-on-one confrontations between Czech goalie Hasek and Russian right wing Pavel Bure makes it an intriguing finale.
Hasek, who thwarted Canada in a semifinal shootout to carry the Czechs to the gold-medal game for the first time, has been sensational in compiling a 1.16 goals-against average and stopping 129 of 135 shots in five games.
Bure scored five goals against Finland in the semifinals to increase his tournament-leading goal-scoring total to nine, also carrying his country's team to its first gold medal game.
"Hasek is probably the best goalkeeper in the world," said Bure, who plays for the NHL's Vancouver Canucks. "But we never get stuck thinking about how our opponent plays--we concentrate on how we will play. I think we will realize our ultimate goal if we play well as a team."
Hasek, the NHL's most valuable player last season with the Buffalo Sabres, also said he worries less about who he's playing against than who he's playing with.
"We play well as a team," he said. "These last two [playoff] games are probably the biggest games of our lives."
The Czechs (4-1) are built around Hasek's goaltending and tight team defense. Although they have only 12 NHL players on their roster, they have become a cohesive and disciplined team under Coach Ivan Hlinka. They have not allowed more than two goals in a game; their only loss was inflicted by Russia, when Valeri Bure and Alexei Zhamnov scored in a 10-second span in the second period for a 2-1 Russian victory in round-robin play. They defeated the U.S. in the quarterfinals before eliminating Canada in the nerve-racking semifinal shootout.
Their top line of Martin Straka, Vladimir Ruzicka and Jaromir Jagr has accounted for five of their 18 goals and 11 points.
Their defense has been impressive, although it has no NHL superstars. Petr Svoboda of Philadelphia is probably the best-known defenseman, but Jiri Slegr, who is having a fine season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has played superbly here and helped the Czechs maintain a smart and physical game.
"It doesn't matter if you play in the NHL or you play back home [in the Czech Republic]. If you play together, you can beat a lot of teams," Slegr said. "That's what's happening for us."
Said Svoboda: "When we came here, after our first game against Finland and we win, 3-0, everybody starts believing in us. Team USA and Team Canada have got more great players but we give it our all."
Russia (5-0), which defeated Belarus in the quarterfinals before overpowering Finland, has had a less-than-stellar defense. However, Pavel Bure--its captain--has helped it compensate for many mistakes.
The dynamic winger has most often played with Valeri Kamensky and Alexei Zhamnov, a combination that makes good use of Zhamnov's playmaking skills. In addition, Bure has been credited with helping clear the stale atmosphere that undermined Team Russia's performance at the 1996 World Cup and led many prominent Russian players to decline Olympic invitations.
"I am very happy that our team has showed good results and we have a very solid captain," said Alexei Kasatonov, Russia's general manager and an original Mighty Duck toward the end of his exceptional career as a defenseman. "The team is composed of just the kind of players who play as a team and for them the result is what counts. That is the reason we decided Pavel Bure should be the captain. He is an excellent player and an excellent leader."
Goaltender Mikhail Shtalenkov of the Ducks, who has a 1.82 goals-against average in four games, didn't look sharp in Russia's 7-4 semifinal victory over Finland, but Bure's exploits saved him and the team.
Russia might not be able to get away with similar mistakes against the Czechs, whose speed up front is ideal for counterattacks.
"We will have to play really well," Russian defenseman Boris Mironov said. "The Czech team is tough and very good."