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Despite problems, Russia proves scary

The United States must get past a team it already has lost to in tonight's quarterfinals.

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Published September 7, 2004

Sergei Fedorov declined to come. So did Nikolai Khabibulin and Alexei Zhamnov.

So Alexei Kovalev was asked: Why did he bother with the World Cup of Hockey?

"Why?" Kovalev said, sounding disgusted at the question. "Because you're playing for your country and you don't know if there's going to be a season (because of the NHL labor situation). This is the time to leave it all out there."

The Russians have so many issues off the ice, some of their stars don't even want to play.

But some of their stars do, and they present a stiff challenge to the United States in the quarterfinals tonight in St. Paul, Minn.

The Russians dominated the Americans in the preliminary game Thursday, outscoring them 3-1 and outshooting them 45-21.

As always, the Russians are highly skilled.

"Offensively they have as good of players as any team in this tournament," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said. "Pavel Datsyuk. Ilya Kovalchuk. Alexei Kovalev.

"The names go on and on. It's a who's who of the best one-on-one players in our league. Some of these guys were the top players in our league last year."

But Wilson was impressed with the Russians' discipline and commitment Thursday, too. Their forwards clogged the neutral zone and helped on defense.

The speedy Russians kept stealing the puck and sustaining pressure in the Americans' end, making them look slow.

The loss to Russia, which came after a similar 2-1 loss to Canada on Aug. 31, prompted Wilson to make dramatic changes. He benched five players, including Brett Hull.

The Americans responded with a 3-1 victory over Slovakia on Friday. They were more energetic, getting off to a good start, and they were smarter. Instead of trying to make plays through the middle, turning over the puck and playing too much in their end, they kept the puck along the boards, sustained pressure in the offensive zone and generated some offense.

Wilson is expected to use the same lineup tonight except for the goaltender. Robert Esche, who rested after facing 77 shots in the first two games, replaces Rick DiPietro.

"We're not worried about what they're trying to do," Kovalev said. "We played a great game, and they just couldn't adjust to it. I think (tonight) will be a much different game."

Much is at stake.

Lose, and the Americans are done. It's single-elimination now. Their core of accomplished veterans will break up in disappointment, some to return, some not, after winning the 1996 World Cup, finishing fifth at the 1998 Olympics and winning silver at the 2002 Olympics.

"We've been thinking about this all summer, so it's a motivating factor," said center Doug Weight, 33, one of 11 players from the 1996 team. "You don't know who's going to be back, with injuries or with what's happening in the league, the talent coming up. I doubt there'll be 11 guys back from the '96 team in (the 2006 Olympics).

"It's been fun. It's been a second team for us. We love each other."

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