MERIBEL, France -- After 40 minutes, they were losing to guys wearing powder blue jerseys who were playing the most important game of their careers.
They were stuck in this bandbox of an arena perched a mile high in the French Alps, where the air was thin, the hockey was frantic, and the only beautiful people in sight were Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith.
They were taking smelling salts. And they were taking heat from Italy.
But in the end, the U.S. hockey team rallied with four third-period goals and defeated Italy, 6-3, last night in an opening-round match at the Winter Olympics.
"We were frustrated," U.S. captain Clark Donatelli said. "We had first-game jitters. We had to kick it up. Get it to a higher tempo. When we did, they just couldn't keep up with us."
The victory may not have been impressive, but it was enough to keep the United States on target in the 12-team tournament. The team's goal is simple: Emerge as one of the top four teams in Pool A and advance to next week's medal round.
In a tournament tailor-made to U.S. tastes and abilities, it would appear to be an easy assignment. But one game into the event, the team received its first tough test, and nearly collapsed.
"We knew the Italians were good," U.S. coach Dave Peterson said.
But this good?
With a goalie from Medford, Mass., named David Delfino shutting down the United States, with Bruno Zarillo, Robert Manno and Giuseppe Foglietta scoring goals, and with the U.S. team running out of gas after a pre-game whiff of smelling salts, the Italians took a 3-2 lead after two periods.
Some teams and coaches might have panicked. Remember 1984 in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, when the U.S. team lost to Canada and was virtually eliminated from medal contention before the opening ceremony?
A loss to Italy wouldn't have eliminated the United States, but it would have ruined the team's confidence.
"We felt we were playing well," Peterson said. "We told the players to put a smile on your face. You've got 20 minutes to get a goal and then, when you get one goal, you can get another."
The U.S. team unloaded on Italy in the third period. Donatelli tied the game 1:41 into the period to ignite the Americans.
Steve Heinze then jammed in a centering pass from Ted Donato with 12 minutes, 58 seconds left. Tim Sweeney intercepted a pass 1:36 later and beat Delfino on a breakaway.
"We all had to take it upon ourselves to step forward," said Sweeney, on loan to the Americans from the Calgary Flames. "We knew there could be an upset. We saw what happened to Canada [which struggled through a 3-2, opening-game victory over France]. But we weren't really that worried."
Actually, it was the Italian team that was playing under pressure in its Olympic debut in medal-level competition. The team has only seven native-born players, relying on 14 Canadians and one American, who carry Italian passports and play in the domestic pro league. The coach is Gene Ubriaco of Lutherville, who previously directed the American Hockey League's Baltimore Skipjacks and the National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins.
"People don't realize the kind of hockey we play in Italy," Ubriaco said. "We have quite a few good players in Italy. The hockey is getting better."
But the Italians were unnerved in the opening moments, fell behind, 2-0, and then fell apart after taking the lead.
"Our team can play better than it did," Ubriaco said. "A lot of players did not have their best games. Many of our players were playing in front of their hometowns -- on television -- for the first time in five or 10 years. They never got their feet on the ground in the first period."
Despite the quick start, Peterson said he expected a tougher finish.
"Because we don't see these leagues in Europe, we don't know how tough the players are," he said.
Throughout the game, Peterson kept referring to miles, not minutes, when he shouted to his players to keep skating and working.
"That's exactly what a period is," he said. "It isn't 20 minutes. It's 20 miles."
Peterson also wore a button on his blue sweater to memorialize a friend, Bob Johnson, the former Team USA and Pittsburgh Penguins coach. The button read, "It's a great day for hockey."
RF For the United States, it wasn't a great day. Just a great period.