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Belarus Stuns Sweden in Its Own ‘Miracle’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Miracle on Ice” is taken, and there aren’t too many other ways to describe something that defies all predictions, logic and even the laws of physics.

So how do you explain Belarus 4, Sweden 3 in the quarterfinals of the men’s Olympic hockey tournament?

“Sometimes even a gun without the bullets shoots,” Belarussian goalie Andrei Mezin said. “That’s us today.”

“The Wonder Shot” is just as good a name as any, given the way Belarus won, on a shot from near center ice that got past Swedish goalie Tommy Salo with 2 minutes 24 seconds left in the game.

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An unlikely outcome? Yes. Unprecedented? Hmm.

“It’s happened before,” Sweden Coach Hardy Nilsson said. “At least, it happened in 1980.”

This result was just as unlikely as the U.S. college kids’ upset of the Soviet Union’s professional machine in the semifinals at Lake Placid, albeit without the Cold War subplot.

In a tournament loaded with NHL stars, the Belarussians had only one player currently in the league: Ruslan Salei of the Mighty Ducks. They had to win their pool in the qualifying tournament last week just to reach the final round. After a close loss to Russia, the Belarussians were pounded by identical 8-1 scores versus Finland and the United States. Sweden--led by Mats Sundin of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Salo of the Edmonton Oilers among its 18 NHL players--had played the best, most consistent hockey of any team during the final round.

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“I think it’s unbelievable,” Salei said. “Absolutely incredible.

“Nobody gave us a chance, but we wanted to play the best we could.”

They exceeded Sweden’s effort and won on the flukiest goal of the tournament. Defenseman Vladimir Kopat, skating over the Olympic rings logo near center ice, fired the puck at Salo. Salo said it hit him “somewhere around my neck, and I thought I could get a glove on it. I think it hit my glove.”

It dropped behind him and then trickled across the goal line, just before diving Swedish defenseman Kenny Jonsson could reach it.

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“If I said I wanted to make this goal, nobody would have believed me,” Kopat said through an interpreter. “I just shoot behind the red line, and that’s what happened.”

Sundin blamed the rest of the team, rather than Salo.

“When it’s 3-3 that late in the game against a team we had a chance to put away after one or two periods, anything can happen,” Sundin said.

Sweden outshot Belarus, 21-8, in the first period but emerged trailing, 2-1, on Belarussian goals from Oleg Romanov and Dmitry Dudik.

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“I think they weren’t ready from the beginning,” Mezin said. “They took a lot of shots, but they didn’t really want to score--of course they want to, but they weren’t hungry for the goal.”

Sweden tied the score on a power play goal by Michael Nylander midway through the second period. Andrei Kovalev put Belarus ahead 2:47 into the third period, and Sundin scored his fifth goal of the tournament to make it 3-3 at the 7:54 mark of the third.

So Belarus, the former Soviet republic that became an independent state in 1991, advanced to the semifinals.

“It’s a good holiday for Belarus,” Coach Vladimir Krikunov said. “Our team never reached such a result as today.”

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The breakaway republic’s team consists of NHL castoffs, including former King Vladimir Tsyplakov. Mezin, the goalie who made 44 saves Wednesday, could never crack the league.

“I tried for five years to make it to the NHL, because it was always my dream,” said Mezin, who plays for the Berlin Capitals of the German Elite League. “I went from Tier 2 in Canada to the IHL, but when I went to Fort Wayne, they had two NHL goalies there. I tried other places and went everywhere, but then I went to Europe, because it was too tough for me to make it.”

It was tough for the Swedes to take Wednesday’s outcome.

“It’s a devastating loss for us and our country,” forward Markus Naslund said. “We have been playing well and something like this happens.”

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Things like this happen ... every two decades or so.

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Times staff writer Lonnie White contributed to this report.


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