Saturday, February 20, 2010
On this date in 2002, Belarus shocked the hockey world with a stunning upset victory over heavily favored Sweden at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The format of the tournament called for only the top six teams automatically entered into the final eight, with the remaining eight countries obligated to play in the Preliminary Round, with the two survivors advancing to the Final Round of group play.
The NHL did not even bother to suspend league play for the Preliminary Round, which so severely hampered the efforts of countries like Latvia and Slovakia, whose star players were obligated to stay with their NHL clubs, that the Olympic format in 2006 was changed to prevent such an injustice from happening again.
Belarus started the tournament in Group B of the Preliminary Round with Ukraine, Switzerland and France and only one NHL player on their roster, Ruslan Salei.
They began their group play with a key 1-0 win over Ukraine and were aided when France managed a tie with Switzerland, leaving Belarus alone on top of the standings after just one game.
Belarus defeated France 3-1, while Ukraine downed Switzerland 5-2. All Belarus needed was to win or tie against Switzerland to win the group and advance, but they lost 2-1, while Ukraine tied them in the standings with 4 points apiece after their win over France 4-2, with Belarus advancing due to their head-to-head victory over Ukraine.
The Belarusian's reward for advancing, in only their second Olympics ever, was to be placed in a group with Russia, Finland and the United States.
Things went pretty much as expected with wins for Russia 6-4, Finland 8-1 and the United States 8-1, leaving Belarus last in the group with 6 goals for and 22 against.
Fortunately for Belarus, all teams advanced to the Medal Round of knockout games, and, as the last place finisher in Group B, Belarus was paired with the winners of Group A, the heavily favored Swedes, who had just gone undefeated against Germany, the Czech Republic and Canada.
Sweden started out the game with a Nicklas Lidstrom power play goal at 3:10 of the first period, but then Belarus tied the game with a shorthanded goal by Oleg Romanov less than five minutes later. Dmitry Dudik then scored during a 5 on 3 advantage later in the first period to take the lead.
The confidence that goal gave Belarus showed as they counterattacked aggressively to take advantage of Sweden pushing one defenseman forward into the offensive play. Sweden tied the score after two periods with a goal by Michael Nylander.
The third period began with Belarus taking the lead once more at 2:47 with a goal by Andrei Kovalev and once more Sweden came back when Mats Sundin tied the game at 7:54, leaving 12 minutes to decide the game. Belarus killed off a penalty at the halfway point and Sweden had to do the same at 14:46.
Now down to the final five minutes, Sweden still fully expected to find the goal they needed to advance, but then the unthinkable happened...
Vladimir Kopat came up the ice with the puck, crossed the center red line and let go a 70-foot shot at the Swedish goaltender Tommy Salo, who won the gold medal for Sweden in 1994 when he stopped Paul Kariya's final shootout attempt for Canada. The puck continued to rise as it travelled toward the goal and, as Salo awkwardly jumped up and tried to catch the puck next to his head instead of just reaching up and catching it, the puck hit him in the mask near his neck, bounced up and dribbled into the goal behind him for a 4-3 Belarus lead with just 2:24 to play.
Belarus circled the wagons and kept Sweden at bay for the remainder of the game, including the final 56 seconds with and extra attacker on for Sweden. While Kopat will go down in history as the man who scored the improbable goal, goaltender Andrei Mezin starred for Belarus with 44 saves, keeping them in the game despite being outshot 47-27. "For sure, it is a miracle for us," Mezin said. "But sometimes a gun without bullets can shoot, and that was us. We've made our place in history."
"He played the game of his life," Sweden coach Hardy Nilsson said.
"It's a devastating loss for us and our country," Swedish forward Markus Naslund said.
"I don't understand how we could lose against this team. We should have put this team away in the first or second period," Swedish captain Sundin said.
The victory was immediately ranked as one of the top three upsets in Olympic history, along with the United States victory over the Soviet Union in 1980 and Great Britian's defeat of Canada in 1936.
Kopat, who scored the winning goal, was asked, ''Do you believe in miracles?''
''Yes,'' he replied. ''Of course. It was just a shot from the red line and ... well, that's what happened," said Kopat, who seemed as incredulous about the goal as anyone.Even Salei said afterward, "It was a lucky goal."
Belarus would finish the tournament classified fourth.
Today's featured jersey is a Nike 2002 Belarus National Team Vladimir Tsyplakov jersey as worn during their famous upset over Sweden at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Tsyplakov was originally drafted 59th overall by the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL and played for the Kings in five seasons and parts of two more seasons with the Buffalo Sabres before returning to Russia, where he played an additional four years before retiring.
His final NHL totals were 331 games, 69 goals and 101 assists for 170 points.
Here are the final few minutes of Belarus' shocking upset victory against Sweden in the 2002 Olympics.
Dasherboard: Sweden got off to a 3-0 lead over Belarus before taking their foot off the gas and letting Belarus pull back two goals to make things interesting before Daniel Alfredsson put the game away with a goal with just 11 seconds remaining. The victory in regulation gives Sweden their expected 6 points heading into Sunday's game with Finland, but the two goals by Belarus left Sweden trailing the United States in goal differential by 3 and the Czech Republic by 1.
In the second game of the day, the Czech Republic were already up by a score of 3-0 before MSNBC got around to showing the game following curling (again). Lativa settled down after that and a pair of goals in the latter half of the second period pulled them to within 4-2 and were looking for one more goal to make things interesting. It was not to come however, and the Czechs added an empty netter at the end for a final of 5-2. The win allowed the Czechs to move to the top of Group B with 6 points, 2 clear of Russia. With Russia losing to the Slovaks yesterday (or was it really early this morning?), all the Czechs need is to take Russia to overtime, win or lose, to claim the bye that comes with winning the group.
Finland's 5-0 win over Germany sets up a winner-take-all showdown with Sweden on Sunday, with both teams tied with 6 points. It will be a reprisal of their gold medal showdown from the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy. Teemu Selanne moved into first place in all-time Olympic hockey scoring with his 37th point.
Today's games get underway with Norway vs. Switzerland (MSNBC), followed by Latvia vs. Slovakia (MSNBC) and the insomniac game being Germany vs. Belarus (MSNBC).
Switzerland will be favored against Norway and 3 points from a regulation win would likely keep them ahead of Norway, Latvia, Germany and set up a potential Secondary Round matchup with Belarus.
Slovakia's defeat of Russia certainly means they will be expected to beat Latvia and conceivably pass Russia, should they lose to the Czechs. 5 potential points still won't be enough to earn them a bye, so they must focus on earning enough points to stay clear of Switzerland and draw one of the bottom three teams, likely Germany, on the first day of eliminations.
Belarus at least looks capable of scoring a goal now and then, something that can't be said for Germany's "soccer on ice" approach, and they will be favored over the Germans. A win for Belarus would give them a likely meeting with Switzerland on Tuesday, while a loss has them looking at Slovakia - or worse - on Tuesday.