WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah - To an Olympic hockey tournament that has made more unusual turns than a Zamboni, one more unseen spin was added Saturday.
Russia got the bronze. Belarus got the respect.
Team Russia, believed by many to be a gold-medal contender at the Salt Lake City Games, settled for third place Saturday after an easy 7-2 victory over Belarus in the bronze-medal game at the E Center. Still stinging from what they considered improper officiating in their semifinal loss to Team USA Friday night, the Russians started slowly, but pulled away with five goals in the final two periods to put their country on the medal stand for the 13th time in the last 14 Olympics.
And the modestly talented Belarussians, playing in just their second Olympic hockey tournament, came up one win short of a medal after going farther than anyone could have imagined. But, as they left the ice to chants of "Belarus," and with their sticks in the air while the Russians waited emotionlessly at the other end of the ice for an unfulfilling prize, it seemed as if the winning team this time was not necessarily the one that scored more goals.
"Obviously, when you finish third, it's a big disappointment because we thought we had so much talent and we had so much hope," said Russian captain Igor Larinov, whose country had won the gold medal in eight previous Olympics. "Indeed, it was a tough week, a tough nine days. But some players are going to leave the Olympic village losers."
The losing team Saturday did not appear to feel that way, even after getting bulldozed for the final two periods in their second straight game.
For 23 minutes, Belarus stayed close to another deeper, more talented opponent. The underdogs tied the game 2-2 just 1:15 into the second period when Dmitry Dudik got behind two Russian defensemen, collected a pass at center ice and broke in alone, beating Nikolai Khabibulin over the left shoulder.
But the momentum faded as quickly as Belarus' chances.
Oleg Tverdovsky beat Segei Shabanov to the glove side with a slap shot from the point at the 3:11 mark of the second and Russia went ahead by two goals 23 seconds later. With Russia pressuring off the faceoff, Belarus failed to clear the puck from its own end, and it went to Pavel Datsyuk in the left circle. From there, the Russian forward walked in and snapped a shot past Shabanov, who had replaced Andrei Mezin in Belarus' net to start the second period.
"I think we had a real chance in the first period," said Belarus forward Aleksandr Andrievsky. "The Russian team was in shock because they came here to play for the gold medal, not the bronze.
"As we say in Russia and Belarus, hope is the last to die.' But, after that fifth goal, we realized it was over."
And so the Russians didn't have to ask for a second bronze to be awarded the way Olympics' newest leader in compulsory whining surely would have had they lost Saturday. But maybe one should be given to the heartening Belarussians.
A qualifier into the second round, Belarus had only three NHL players compared to full rosters of professionals for most of the medal-round teams. Still, they beat Sweden, the team many assumed to be the gold-medal favorite after the first round, in the quarterfinals and challenged Canada and Russia briefly before losing their last two games.
They had played so much better than anyone expected, they were even questioned about their chances in the upcoming Hockey World Championships.
"I think it's going to be harder for us now," said Andrievsky, "because everyone will treat us seriously."
And that could turn out to be the shocker of Salt Lake.
Savannah Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.