U.S. hockey team stuns Finland, but ices talk of gold

February 14, 1992|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,Staff Writer

MERIBEL, France -- Shhhh. They don't want to talk about it.

"It was a good game for us," goalie Ray LeBlanc said after the U.S. Olympic hockey team's 4-1 defeat of Finland yesterday, "but it's still too early to get excited."

They would rather you not mention it at all, thank you.

"We're not thinking about anything," coach Dave Peterson said, "except playing Poland in the next game."

So button it.

"This is a boost and we're excited," forward Scott Young said, "but we've got it in perspective."

OK, so don't bring it up. Don't even mention that the Americans suddenly are showing more than a passing resemblance to -- shhhh -- the miracle workers of 1980.

They're unbeaten now in three games and making loud noise in FTC the Olympics for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president. Maybe it's too soon to start thinking about a repeat of 1980, but yesterday's victory was evidence that the Americans are more substantive than just about anyone anticipated.

Considered no better than a long shot for the bronze medal in the beginning, they soundly defeated a Finnish team that had 10 players with NHL experience.

Beating Italy and Germany didn't prove much, but beating Finland did.

"The Americans are an excellent team," Finland's Mikko Makela said. "If they play the rest of the tournament as well as they did today . . . ."

Stop right there, buddy! They don't want to hear it.

Not yet.

"It's great that maybe people back home will get excited now, but we just can't afford to think about it that way," said LeBlanc, the linchpin of the surprising run, with only one goal allowed in the last seven periods.

But sorry, there are just too many similarities. This year's team is winning not so much by being more talented, but by being defensively sound, opportunistic and having a hot goalie -- the 1980 blueprint.

Yesterday, for the second straight game, the Americans won despite being on defense for much more than half of the 60 minutes. The Finns' offense was organized, their stick-handling brilliant. But LeBlanc shut them down, and his teammates converted Finnish mistakes into the big goals.

"We knew they'd control the puck because that's their style of play," said Peterson, whose team clinched a spot in the medal round. "The difference was that they just weren't as opportunistic as we were.

"We scored on turnovers. Our transition game was good."

Three of the four American goals came on a breakaway, a power play and an intercepted pass at mid-ice. It was 1-1 midway through the second period, but Tim Sweeney scored on a breakaway before the end of the period, and the Americans dominated the third period with harsh checking.

Sean Hill pushed the lead to two with 10 minutes left, and Young made the score look lopsided two minutes later by stealing a pass while defending a power play, skating in alone and beating Finland goalie Markus Ketterer.

While a foot of snow was falling outside the bright, intimate, 6,000-seat arena in this ski resort village, a lively and sizable collection of American fans waved giant flags, cheered and chanted U-S-A. One fan waved a giant Redskins flag.

It should be noted that, in losing, the Finns didn't play their best. They failed to convert several early scoring chances that could have made a difference. Teemu Selanne missed an open net at a sharp angle. American defenseman Guy Gosselin cleared a loose puck off the goal line late in the first period.

The Finns didn't create chances as consistently after that. The Americans packed their end, cut off the shot lines to LeBlanc and filled the middle to avoid dangerous rebounds.

"We were conservative," Peterson said. "It was planned. And when we did have breakdowns, Ray saved us. I've said from the beginning that the strength of this team was depth. We've got a lot of people doing the job."

Strangely, the Finns went particularly flat after they finally managed to beat LeBlanc on a short-handed goal midway through the second period.

"They looked pretty much flat to me the whole game," said Canada coach Dave King, whose team is unbeaten in the other round-robin group. "You figure they'd get excited after an inspiring goal like that, but exactly the opposite happened."

The Americans have two games remaining in the round-robin phase, against weak Poland and tournament-favorite Sweden. The more they win, the weaker their opponent will be in the first-round of the single-elimination eight-team championship draw, which begins next week.

That's when they will begin their serious pursuit of recreating the past. But until then...

Shhhh.

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