U.S. comes up short in spite of advantage


TURIN, Italy -- Chris Chelios says the U.S. men's hockey team has gotten better with each game of the Olympic tournament.

If a second successive one-goal loss is his definition of improvement, that kind of progress could lead to a quick ticket home.

Unable to capitalize on two five-on-three advantages and hapless at grabbing rebounds, the United States lost yesterday to Sweden, 2-1, the same score as its loss to Slovakia on Saturday. The U.S. is 1-2-1 in preliminary-round play with one game left against Russia tomorrow, but Chelios insists that he's not worried.

"I think we feel good about our game," he said. "We put ourselves in great position with two five-on-threes and got them taking penalties.

"Our biggest concern was playing well defensively. We forced them to take penalties and that's what you want to do. It's unfortunate we couldn't capitalize on those, and I think that was the turning point of the game."

The U.S. is fourth in Group B with three points, ahead of two winless teams, Latvia and Kazakhstan. To miss the playoffs, the U.S. would have to lose to Russia by a huge margin and Latvia would have to defeat Kazakhstan by enough goals to erase its minus-15 goal differential.

That's not likely, but Chelios and his teammates are aware that they must get their offense going when the playoffs start Wednesday. They've scored nine goals in four games and only four goals in 22 advantages.

"We've got to get our power play clicking," defenseman Mathieu Schneider said. "We knew coming in that it would be a huge part of things for us.

"We've got some of the greatest goal scorers that ever played the game in our dressing room. We've got to get our second chances and rebounds and play a simple game."

Sweden, which allowed forward Peter Forsberg to sit on the bench but held him in reserve to protect a chronic groin strain, did nothing fancy and did everything well in improving to 3-1-0 and clinching a playoff berth.

Its penalty-killing, led by Mighty Ducks forward Sammy Pahlsson, was fierce and effective, and its power play succeeded at an opportune time. Mikael Samuelsson, who has scored a career-best 20 goals for the Detroit Red Wings this season, scored the decisive goal at 4:22 of the third period when he converted the rebound of Daniel Alfredsson's shot past a helpless Rick DiPietro.

Each team had scored its first goal in the first period. Alfredsson lifted a back-hander over DiPietro at 7:05 and Mike Modano matched that at 17:31 with a shot from the inner edge of the right circle after a nifty setup from Craig Conroy.

"The penalty-killing was huge for us," Samuelsson said. "You can't expect it to work for the first game, but as the tournament goes on and we have some practices together, it will get better."

He described his team's play so far as "OK," adding, "I think we can pick it up a little bit."

The U.S. must pick up its play considerably, but coach Peter Laviolette said he was hesitant to make major changes as long as the team was creating scoring chances. Nor did he blame DiPietro, who has played three straight games since John Grahame started the tournament-opening 3-3 tie with Latvia.

Goaltending isn't the problem. Goal scoring is.

Similar difficulties tomorrow could be the beginning of the end for a team that won the silver medal four years ago at Salt Lake City.

"We've got to do something against the Russians that's positive," Chelios said. "It takes confidence to succeed. It takes momentum. We need that because with the upsets here, it's anybody's tournament. Hopefully, when we come up to that first elimination game, we'll play our best game."

Helene Elliott writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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