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Saturday, 23 February, 2002, 22:35 GMT

Russia make do with bronze

Alexei Kovalev scored two goals to help Russia capture the Olympic men's ice hockey bronze medal with a 7-2 win over surprise package Belarus.

However, the colour of the medal is a major disappointment for Russia who have only once finished worse than third at an Olympic tournament (they came fourth in 1994).

Belarus, who had pulled off the upset of the Games by ousting Sweden 4-3 in the quarter-finals, put up a brave fight until the latter stages.

They managed to level the game at 2-2 just 75 seconds into the second period with Dmitry Dudik scoring a breakaway goal.

He beat Russian goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin high to the upper right corner of the net.

But Russia's Oleg Tverdovsky scored on a slapshot from the blueline 1:56 later and when Pavel Datsyuk extended the lead within 23 seconds, it began to look like a rout was on the cards.

Pavel Bure, Maxim Afinogenov and Kovalev added third-period goals to complete the scoring.

Kovalev had opened the scoring 5:28 into the first period, evading defender Oleg Mikulchuk and backhanding the puck past Mezin.

Belarus equalised 3:53 later when Dmitry Pankov banged a rebound past Khabibulin.

But two minutes later the Russians recaptured the lead when Darius Kasparaitis slid a backhand shot past Mezin.

Goaltender Khabibulin admitted his relief that Russia would be taking a medal home from Salt Lake City:

"We knew we couldn't go home empty. We couldn't lose to Belarus, but it was a tough game for us.

"We spent a lot of emotions last night. It was tough to get up for this game," he said.

For Belarus, the defeat was the conclusion of the longest Olympic medal quest by any ice hockey team.

They played nine matches in total, beating the previous record by one.

Mezin admiited that three qualifying matches, three round-robin seeding matches and then upsetting Sweden in the quarter-finals before losing to Canada in the semis had taken their toll.

"We are tired, but we have accomplished a lot for our country," he explained.

"It has been tough for us. We may lose 7-1 sometimes but it has been a great experience."

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