by Shawn P. Roarke - www.nhl.com
Team USA coach Herb Brooks played with fire at the 1980 Olympics. Now, 22 years later, he seems to be, once again walking a fine line to get the most out of his team.
In 1980, Brooks played mind games with a bunch of college-aged players, turning it into an unit that shocked the world by winning gold at the 1980 Lake Placid Games. Here in Salt Lake City, Brooks is again pulling rabbits out of hats, be it with a completely different style of players.
Now, Brooks has the best professional players the country has at its disposal as he tries to repeat the gold medal journey of 1980. Obviously, that presents a whole new set of problems for the coach, but, so far at least, he has mastered the complexities of the situation.
No where is that more clear than in Brooks' handling of his goaltenders. His roster features three world-class keepers in New York Rangers' Mike Richter, Nashville's Mike Dunham and Carolina's Tom Barrasso.
That collection of talent could be a potential minefield of egos, but Brooks has sidestepped any possible problems.
He shocked many observers by starting Dunham in Team USA's first game against Finland. Dunham responded with a brilliant shutout of the Finns. The next night, Richter was between the pipes against Russia. Again, the roll of the dice was perfect.
Richter turned in a highlight performance, turning aside 33 shots, as Team USA pulled off a 2-2 tie that left the Americans in control of their destiny in Group D.
Who will he chose to play against Belarus on Monday with the Americans needing a win against the weakest side in the group to earn the top seed for Wednesday's quarterfinal. That remains anyone's guess.
Brooks wasn't tipping his hand after Sunday's practice session. He said that the choice would be a game-time decision.
Both Dunham and Richter have earned another shot with their performances. But, neither is rocking the boat as their fates remain up in the air. Either could start Monday's game, or Brooks could go with Barrasso in a more unlikely scenario.
"Egos are checked at the door in a tournament like this," said Dunham, who also had a shutout in his last NHL game before the Olympic break. "Whatever you can do to help the team -- that's the bottom. We're all professionals here and we understand the situation."
Many players acknowledged that Richter stole the Americans a point in the game with Russia. Yet, Richter, who started all four games at the 1998 Nagano Games and won a gold medal in a starring role at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, isn't making waves either.
"I don't think they are telling anybody," said Richter on Sunday when asked if he was starting against Belarus. "The coach will announce that when he does. I said I came ready, and expecting, to play every game, but understand any rotation was possible."
Brooks did not start Richter against the Finns because he wanted to give the veteran goalie, who is coming off a summer knee surgery, an extra day's rest. That suggests that Brooks may again go with Dunham on Monday, allowing Richter three days rest before the single-elimination quarterfinal contest on Wednesday.
Stressing the Americans' team-first attitude in this tournament, both goalies insist they do not mind being pawns in Brooks' elaborate chess game.
"It's a nice luxury when the coach can pick and choose his goaltenders," said a diplomatic Dunham. "It doesn't matter, as long as we keep winning."