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Sunday, February 24, 2002
 
Team USA's top line can't produce

Associated Press


WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- While leaving the ice after a fruitless third-period shift, United States forward John LeClair rapped his stick against the boards repeatedly, harshly, angrily.

That frustration also was apparent on the faces of LeClair's linemates, Mike Modano and Brett Hull. They were the talk of the Olympic tournament until Sunday's gold-medal game against Canada. With nine goals, Modano, Hull and LeClair were counted upon for big things in the United States' biggest game since 1980.

John LeClair
The Flyers missed John LeClair in their recent road trip.

Instead, they came up with almost nothing.

With a combination of good defensive matchups, physical play and a bit of luck, the Canadians shut down the Americans' best line. Except for assists by Hull and Modano on a power-play goal, there was only silence from the trio that threatened to outscore the entire Russian team in the tournament.

Since the rest of the U.S. team followed its top line's lead throughout the games, its troubles spelled doom for the American effort. The United States scored 24 goals in its first five games in Salt Lake City, but Canada's defense held the Americans in check all afternoon with puck control, patience and a few key saves by Martin Brodeur.

When Modano and his wings lined up for the opening faceoff, Canada countered with a hulking line of Eric Lindros, Owen Nolan and Ryan Smyth, hoping to use their superior size to slow down the Americans' high-scoring trio.

LeClair, a rock of distraction in front of opposing nets throughout the tournament, couldn't bully the Canadians' powerful defensemen. Hull found his shot constantly bothered by Canadian sticks and shin pads. Even Modano, whose skating generated so many chances for his line, never got up a consistent head of steam.

The United States relied heavily on the line throughout the tournament, particularly with Keith Tkachuk's limited play because of an injury. Tkachuk, whose net-blocking abilities could have been a key, dressed for the gold medal game but took only a few ineffective shifts.

The rest of the American lines didn't have much punch, either. The United States' first goal came on an early 2-on-1 breakout for Tony Amonte, but it was one of just a handful of odd-man chances.

LeClair originally got credit for redirecting Brian Rafalski's shot for the Americans' second goal on a power play, but the puck actually hit Canadian defenseman Chris Pronger's stick.

Coach Herb Brooks periodically double-shifted the entire line in the third period, attempting to generate any kind of pressure on the Canadian defense, but their every effort was thwarted.

When Modano lined up for a slap shot with eight minutes to play, Canadian defenseman Al MacInnis rode LeClair into the net, dislodging it and stopping play. Brodeur made a fine toe save on a power-play shot by Hull with less than five minutes left and Canada nursing a 3-2 lead.

Moments later, Canada got the goal that sealed its first gold medal in 50 years. While waiting for the medal presentation, Hull and Modano stood together, quietly commiserating on a chance missed.