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LILLEHAMMER / ’94 WINTER OLYMPICS : Looking Out of Its League, U.S. Goes Down Fighting : Hockey: Americans fail to convert early scoring chances and formidable Finland wins quarterfinal game, 6-1.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They barely could keep up with the Swedes and Finns, Canadians and Slovaks, desperately clutching and grabbing the smallest hope of winning an Olympic medal. When that was pulled from their grasp Wednesday, players on the U.S. hockey team shared a deep sense of loss and the disappointment of not having played their best on center stage.

For the fourth consecutive Games, the U.S. hockey entry will go home without a medal. The last qualifier for the quarterfinals after posting a 1-1-3 round-robin record, the U.S. was eliminated from playoff competition quickly Wednesday, losing, 6-1, to a formidable and apparently fearless Finnish team.

Finland (6-0) will play Canada in the semifinals Friday, while the Americans play two games to determine fifth through eighth places, starting today against the Czech Republic.

“When something you strived for, for such a long time, you just can’t get your hands on it anymore, it’s really a feeling of emptiness,” forward Peter Ciavaglia said. “I’m sure we’re all going to think for a long time about what we could have done. It’s not going to get any better lying in bed tonight.

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“When you work so hard to reach something, and now you can’t, it’s certainly frustrating that it slipped away, and it happened so fast.”

The game plan Wednesday was to test Finland’s newfound confidence. The U.S. had the better early scoring chances and might have forced Finland to rally for the first time in the tournament had Ted Drury converted his breakaway in the first three minutes but goaltender Jarmo Myllys turned away that shot with his left knee.

Myllys, who has won as many games here--four--as he won in four NHL seasons with Minnesota and San Jose, also stopped a 25-foot shot by Brian Rolston with his stick at 5:25.

Although neither he nor Jukka Tammi had faced more than 14 shots in their previous five games, he was impressive against 12 shots in the first period. He kept Finland in the game until the Americans, as has been their habit here and through pre-Olympic play, took unnecessary and costly penalties.

And so a good beginning Wednesday turned into a bad ending, making the final image of this team one of unruly children. Finland converted four of its seven power plays, each time on penalties that involved excessive violence. The ugliest moment occurred with 3:24 to play and the outcome long since settled, when U.S. players pummeled Vesa Erik Hammalainen in a skirmish in front of the U.S. bench.

“Of course it was not so nice to see at the end, but I can excuse them for that,” Finnish Coach Curt Lindstrom said. “I think that team normally has a big will to win and when they saw that chance (fail), they tried provocation. Also, there was more hooking and holding today because the Finnish team today was quicker and faster.”

Faster, stronger and soaring higher.

“We were taken out of our game plan by a good Finnish team and ourselves,” U.S. Coach Tim Taylor said. “In the first part of the first period, we were playing the kind of hockey we knew we had to play. If we could have kept Finland on edge. . . . There was history. They haven’t always had strong confidence. If we had kept them on edge, we would have had a chance to win. But they got a comfortable lead and it was over.”

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That lead was 1-0 after Saku Koivu, Montreal’s top draft pick last June, rebounded a shot by Jere Lehtinen after U.S. right winger John Lilley was penalized for charging. The lead grew to 2-0 when Esa Keskinen tipped the puck away from Craig Johnson at center ice and sent Mika Nieminen in on a short-handed breakaway, an opportunity made even easier when defenseman Barry Richter inexplicably dashed for the bench before being replaced.

“I slept my two hours last night and was dreaming of winning,” Lindstrom said. “I thought we had a good chance to win (and) when we scored our second goal, my nerves were better.”

His nerves were frayed a bit when David Sacco cut Finland’s lead to 2-1, 54 seconds into the second period. Sacco recorded the Americans’ first short-handed goal of the tournament off a give-and-go with Jeff Lazaro, but they were unable to sustain that surge.

Instead, Finland resumed pressuring the U.S. defense and intercepted a clearing pass Chris Imes had banged off the boards to set up Nieminen’s close-in goal at 4:05. With Matt Martin off for roughing Hannu Virta, Finland padded its lead to 4-1 at 6:21 as Virta lifted a shot over a diving Travis Richards.

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“Getting that quick goal in the second period when we were shorthanded was a real boost, but then we were victimized by our penalties and we kept getting ourselves out of sync,” Taylor said. “The result tonight is the result of not only the good play of Finland but our propensity for taking penalties.”

With a staunch defense and the Americans’ tendency to self-destruct, Finland was hardly challenged the rest of the game. The challenge for the Americans now is to end the tournament as respectably as possible.

“This was a young team and I think we gave it our all,” Rolston said. “I don’t think we played as well as we did during the tour. Did we have stage fright? That’s possible. I don’t think we came at teams the way we could have, but I don’t think there’s an explanation for why we didn’t play as well as we could have.”

Said goalie Garth Snow: “When we came here, we wanted to win the gold medal. Our expectations were pretty high for ourselves and I’m sure the expectations for people back home were pretty high, too. It’s a long season and to come up with nothing is disappointing for all of us. We had higher expectations than this and when you don’t reach them, you’re definitely not satisfied.”

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Alexander Vinogradov whipped a wrist shot past Slovakian goaltender Eduard Hartmann with 1:21 left in overtime Wednesday, giving Russia a 3-2 victory and a berth in Friday’s semifinals against Sweden (4-1-1). Russia is 4-2.

Russia’s predecessors, the Soviet Union and Commonwealth of Independent States, won a medal in every Olympic hockey tournament since they began competing in 1956. Eight were gold.


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