Originally created 05/04/04

U.S. team secures berth for 2006 Olympics



PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- The United States secured an automatic berth into the 2006 Olympics without playing Monday at the hockey world championships.

Finland ousted Russia 4-0 to give the Americans a boost into the tournament quarterfinals and guarantee that they will be ranked among the world's top eight countries when the championships are over. Latvia also advanced to the quarters after defeating Austria 5-2.

By reaching the quarterfinals, the United States will finish ahead of either Germany, Switzerland or both - thus maintaining its top-eight world ranking. Entering the tournament, the three countries were vying for two spots that would clinch automatic Olympic berths.

The top eight teams in the world rankings after the tournament qualify for the Turin Games.

The United States has one qualifying game left - against Denmark on Tuesday - and is sure to finish in fourth place in Group F. The quarterfinals are Wednesday and Thursday.

The Finns eliminated any chance the Russians had of reaching the quarterfinals, leaving them in fifth place, a point behind the Americans. The Russians have no games remaining.

"We're pretty proud of our team here," U.S. coach Peter Laviolette said. "They've come together in a short period of time and they've played some big games so far, against Russia, Sweden, Finland and Slovakia. It hasn't been an easy road."

The Americans plan to use the Denmark game as a tuneup for their game against the Czech Republic in the next round.

"This is good news because it puts us in a position to play in the final eight and move forward," Laviolette said. "It takes the heat off tomorrow's game."

The Americans have been getting progressively better. They lost 4-2 to Finland, tied Slovakia 3-3 then routed Denmark 7-1 in preliminary round play. In the qualifying round, the U.S. squad beat Russia 3-2 before losing 3-1 to Sweden.

The Americans arrived in Prague looking to avoid a repeat of their 13th-place finish at last year's worlds, when they barely escaped relegation.

Teams finishing out of the top eight will have to vie for one of three Olympic berths in a qualifying tournament in February 2005, when their best players are still competing in the NHL.

In other qualifying-round games, former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Josef Beranek scored twice, leading the Czech Republic to a 6-2 victory over defending champion Canada. With the win, the Czechs earned the top spot in Group E.

In Ostrava, Slovakia and Sweden, last year's runner-up, played to a scoreless tie. Slovakia finished ahead of Sweden in Group F on goal difference.

Sweden and Slovakia will find out their opponents in the next round when the final group rankings are sorted out Tuesday.

In a physical match that included 38 penalty minutes, including 20 for roughing, the Czechs overwhelmed Canada's defense and goaltending.

The speedy and skillful Czechs, playing in front of 18,000 vocal home fans, charged to a 2-0 lead in the first seven minutes.

In the scoreless draw between Sweden and Slovakia, Henrik Lundqvist and Jan Lasak each earned a shutout.

Scoreless games are rare at the worlds. The most memorable was the 1982 final in Helsinki, Finland, when the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia tied 0-0, preventing Canada from winning the silver medal.