MERIBEL, France -- For a while, it looked like 1988 all over again.
The Americans blew a two-goal lead against Italy -- a team they were expected to beat -- and went into the third period of last night's Olympic opener against the Italians down by a goal.
In 1988, the U.S. defense faltered so much that the Americans didn't even get into the medal round. A different tournament? Maybe. But the same results seemed imminent.
But suddenly, this unpredictable team took flight. Led by Tim Sweeney, an NHL castoff, Team USA rallied for four straight goals to snare a 6-3 victory.
"This was a big win for us," said U.S. coach Dave Peterson, the architect of the 1988 catastrophe in Calgary, Alberta. "It was important to get on the right track early."
Sweeney, a 24-year-old winger out of Weymouth, Mass., was a part-time player for the Calgary Flames before he was placed on loan to the Olympic hockey team in mid-December.
Expectations may have been low for Sweeney, but the results were sky high. Sweeney had an insurance goal and two assists and a solid game from end line to end line.
"I just wanted to help the team as much as I possibly could," said Sweeney, Team USA's second-line right winger. "That was stepping forward in the third period, which we needed. That was the way I wanted to contribute."
Although Sweeney was new to this particular team, he was no stranger to Peterson and the rest of the U.S. players. He had played with many members of the team at various levels of the national hockey program, and he proved last night that he still fits in with Peterson's program.
"He has a feel for international hockey," Peterson said. "We're very happy to have him."
At first, the game appeared to be a breather. While the fans played their own version of shirts and skins -- seven U.S. fans ripped off their shirts in the pre-game warmups and thereafter beat on their chest whenever appropriate and even when inappropriate -- the fourth-seeded Americans grabbed a 2-0 lead on first-period goals by defenseman Moe Mantha and 1988 returnee Jim Johannson.
Other conspicuous U.S. fans had signs from Rochester, Minn., and Miami (Ohio) University.
Like Sweeney, Mantha was considered an NHL castoff, as he was placed on loan to Peterson by the Winnipeg Jets. Nobody called him that last night.
However, the eighth-seeded Italians, who are coached by former Skipjacks and Pittsburgh Penguins coach Gene Ubriaco, a Lutherville, Md. resident, scored three straight goals to take a 3-2 lead into the second period.
The Italian fans celebrated by beating a drum and singing to the tune of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again."
They did the tomahawk chop made famous by the Atlanta Braves.
Were the U.S. players worried?
Not Sweeney or Peterson.
"We knew we were playing well," Sweeney said. "We thought we were the better team out there. As long as we controlled the play, we really weren't worried."
Said Peterson, "I told them to put a smile on your face. We have 20 minutes to get one. When we get one, we'll get the next one. Let's win the game and have some fun with it."
And that's just what the Americans did.
Playing against one of their own -- Italian goalie Dave Delfino was born in Somerville, Mass., and once tried out for Peterson's team -- the United States erupted for four straight goals in the third period.
Team captain Clark Donatelli, apparently taking his role to heart, began the outburst by tying the game 1:41 into the third period. Steve Heinze scored the game-winner at 7:02. Sweeney netted his goal at 8:37, and C.J. Young danced the jig after ending the barrage at 13:41.
U.S. goalie Ray LeBlanc was outstanding. Only one of the goals he allowed was his fault, and he came up with enough big plays to earn another start tomorrow against Germany.
LeBlanc showed why he edged out teammates Scott Gordon and Mike Dunham. He has a glove like Johnny Bench.
"He was great," Peterson said.
Really, what more could the Americans have asked for? They got good goaltending. They scored a sack of goals. Except for a lapse here and there, they hung tough defensively. And they came from behind to take total command of the game.
"Mentally, it probably was a pretty good confidence builder," said Peterson, who wore a button that read "It's a great day for hockey" in honor of the late Bob Johnson.
Said Heinze, "To win the first game is always good, to get the first one under your belt. You hope everyone will be a little more comfortable next game."
Welcome, Heinze said, to the comfort zone.
Enjoy it while you can. The Swedes are waiting.