Americans can win bronze ... if they want it

Originally Published: January 3, 2005
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- After a disappointing 7-2 semifinal loss to Russia, the question for Team USA is simple: Can they rebound and beat the Czechs in the bronze-medal game?

Not surprisingly, their captain, Nashville Predators prospect Ryan Suter, says yes.

"Our thoughts being here is to go out and win every game we can," said Suter, who was part of last year's gold-medal winning American squad. "We lost to them earlier in the tournament, so it's nice to get another chance to prove that we're a better team."

In their first meeting, the Czechs rode the hot goaltending of backup stopper Vladislav Koutsky (38 saves) to a 3-1 win. This time, Team USA will likely see Czech starter Marek Schwarz, who was the first pick (17th overall) of the St. Louis Blues at last June's draft. Schwarz turned in an excellent 44-save performance in the Czech's one-sided 3-1 semifinal loss to tournament powerhouse Canada.

If the Americans are serious about winning the bronze, they should stick with starting goaltender Al Montoya. The New York Rangers' top pick (sixth overall) in the 2004 draft, Montoya hasn't been at his best in this tournament. Still, he gives Team USA its best chance to gain back-to-back WJC medals for the first time.

Despite the score, which included two empty-net goals, Montoya seemed a bit more comfortable in his crease during the loss to Russia. Trailing 3-2 in the opening minute of the third period, Montoya made his best save of the tournament, a sliding short-handed stop on Russian center Dmitri Pestunovto keep his team in the game. But with his undisciplined teammates giving the dangerous Russians 10 power-play chances, Montoya's best efforts weren't enough. He finished with 36 saves in a losing effort.

If Team USA head coach Scott Sandelin opts to bench Montoya in favor of backup Cory Schneider, it wouldn't be the first time a U.S. coach made an unusual goaltending change in a medal game. Back in 2003, Lou Vairo opted to sit tournament star Bobby Goepfert and start Jimmy Howard in a bronze-medal showdown with Finland. Howard, who hadn't played since being shelled by Russia in the tournament opener, was rusty. He allowed two early goals and was eventually pulled after one period, as the Finns earned the bronze with a 3-2 win.

If Team USA is going to win this bronze medal, they'll have to play a smarter game -- starting with staying out of the penalty box. While many players grumbled about the officiating after the semifinal loss to Russia, most of the calls weren't unwarranted. In fact, during the game's final minutes, the Americans embarrassed themselves by taking several unnecessary runs at Team Russia players.

Unable to slow down Russian stars Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, Team USA must keep a close eye on Czech scorer Rostislav Olecz, who has been one of the top sharpshooters in the tournament.

The Americans would benefit greatly from an early lead against the Czechs, who get trap-happy when they're ahead. In their first meeting, the Czechs were ahead 1-0 after the first period and 2-0 early in the second. They never looked back.

The Americans are considered underdogs to the more-steady Czechs, based on their inconsistent play in this tournament. But the Czechs' preserve-thy-health semifinal performance against Canada didn't inspire too much confidence, either.

Fourth time's a gold?
For the third time in the last four years, the Canadians and Russians will battle for the WJC gold medal. In 2002 and 2003, Team Russia escaped with one-goal victories. And, in 1999, despite a fabulous effort by goalie Roberto Luongo, the Russians beat Canada, 3-2, in overtime to win the gold.

This year, however, the Canadians are a heavy favorite to win their first WJC gold medal since 1997, when their five-year championship run ended.

Team Canada hasn't trailed in any of its five games and has been virtually untested. They totally dominated a timid Czech team in the semifinals, allowing just four shots on goal in the first two periods.

Canada will face more of a challenge against Russia, which hasn't lost since dropping a one-goal decision to Team USA in the tournament opener.

"The Russians will definitely make it a game," said one Eastern Conference scout. "They've got a lot of skill on their bench."

Team Russia coach Valery Bragin decided to break up stars Ovechkin and Malkin and play them on different lines. Ovechkin, a left winger, plays with center Pestunov and right winger Enver Lisin on one line, while the angular Malkin skates between left winger Grigori Shafigulin and right winger Alexander Radoulov.

Both lines should offer a test to a very strong Canadian defense, led by hard-hitting Calgary Flames prospect Dion Phaneuf. The group also includes fellow first-round draft picks Braydon Coburn (Atlanta Thrashers) and Shawn Belle (Blues). Shea Weber, a second-round pick of the Predators in 2003, also has been a force.

Up front, the Canadians have been attacking opponents in waves. The top line, featuring phenom Sidney Crosby, Boston Bruins standout Patrice Bergeron and Anaheim Mighty Ducks' 2003 first-round pick Corey Perry, has been nearly unstoppable.

The Russian defense, which has gotten better as the tournament has worn on, will be hard-pressed to keep the hard-charging Canadians away from goalie Anton Khudobin.

At the other end, it will be interesting to watch Canadian goalie Jeff Glass, who might be the most anonymous player in Grand Forks. Rarely tested, Glass will be called upon to be more of a factor against the skilled Russians. If Glass struggles, the Russians stand a good chance posting an upset.

"The Canadians have been the best team and they should win," said one NHL general manager in attendance. "But, in one game, you never know. The Russians won't be intimidated and they have some great players. It could be quite a game."

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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