MERIBEL, France -- In a bubbling cauldron of emotion, against a gifted and powerful opponent last night, the U.S. Olympic hockey team finally proved it belonged. The Americans did more than simply clinch a coveted first-place finish in their group and give a convincing performance. They earned their stripes and stars.
No, the United States did not upset top-seeded Sweden in a game that was bitterly contested both on and off the ice. But it did score the first three goals, leaned on another remarkable performance by goalie Ray LeBlanc and escaped with a 3-3 tie, a result the mighty Swedes did not obtain until Mikael Johansson's goal with 21 seconds left.
"This is a huge win -- I'll call it a win," center C.J. Young said. "It's enormous. Sweden is supposed to win the tournament. That's why I say it's a victory."
With a 4-0-1 record, the United States edged Sweden (3-0-2) for first place in the "A" pool, earning a meeting today with France in the first round of the single-elimination medal play. It was a result cheered by the overflow crowd of 7,000 at the Patinoire Olympique, many waving homemade banners identifying U.S. outposts such as Woodland Hills, Calif., and Fall River, Minn.
The only dissenting voice came from Dave Peterson, the U.S. coach, who was seething over the crushing -- and dangerous -- bodycheck that usually gentle Mats Naslund delivered against defenseman Greg Brown. The Americans' Clark Donatelli had just scored 36 seconds into the game and Sweden, determined not to fold, roared back.
Only 90 seconds later, Brown was moving the puck at the rear boards, his back turned, when Naslund streaked in and clobbered him against the glass. Brown was unconscious for three minutes and was taken to the hospital in nearby Moutiers with a concussion, a broken nose and a gash on the forehead that required 12 stitches. If the Americans needed any additional incentive, they had it.
"It got us going," defenseman Sean Hill said. "It got us ready to play just a little bit more."
Naslund denied he was trying to hurt Brown, saying, "If they watch the replay and calm down, I'm pretty sure they're going to find that it was no stick involved or no elbows or anything. He must have hit his head on one of the crossbars between the glass. Otherwise, it would have passed like a good hit."
Naslund, a former Lady Byng winner with the Montreal Canadiens, drew a five-minute charging penalty and a game misconduct -- the 25 minutes representing more penalty minutes on one play than he was ever assessed in any of his eight NHL seasons. But it was only the beginning.
Tempers flared, elbows landed and players were bumped to the ice, toppling like bowling pins scattered on an alley. Then Peterson andSwedish assistant coach Peter Lundmark exchanged heated words after the teams left the ice at the end of the first period, a dispute that boiled over into the interview area when the game was over.
Peterson, his fists clenched, was seated at a table answering questions as Lundmark was escorted into the conference room. But when Lundmark reached out his hand in a gesture of sportsmanship, Peterson ignored him, instead staring coldly at the gathering of stunned reporters. Quickly, Lundmark yanked back his hand and his face flushed with anger.
He retreated from the table, leaned against a wall and folded his arms while Peterson spoke. When an official beckoned Lundmark to take a seat, he replied: "I don't want to sit at that table. I stay here."
Minutes later, Peterson brushed past him and marched out the door. Lundmark, his color back, shook his head from side to side.
"Such a thing is very, very bad for the sport," Lundmark said. "I think it's horrible. It's a hard game, but if the players can shake hands I think the leaders can do it. I think it's a big shame. I have nothing against the American players. It's against Peterson."
It wasn't a scene caught by the CBS cameras that televised the
game live back to the United States. What the viewers across the Atlantic did see was the Americans build a 3-0 lead on goals by Ted Donato at 7:18 of the second period and Marty McInnis at 2:42 of the third. They also saw LeBlanc, the Ray of hope, hold Sweden's turbocharged offense scoreless for more than two periods.
Once again, the United States was badly outshot, this time by 48-19, including a shocking 17-2 margin in the third period. But although LeBlanc's shutout streak ended at 136:39 on a power-play goal by Tjomas Sjodin, he finished the round-robin with 164 saves on 171 shots, not to mention satisfying the hometown appeal from a bedsheet hanging at rinkside. "Ray, Do It For Fitchburg, Mass." it read.
"He was amazing in the net," said Sweden's Hakan Loob. "It was one of the best games I have seen by a goaltender anywhere, ever."
Eventually, though, even Le-Blanc began to wilt under the assault. Loob added a power-play goal and, with goalie Roger Nordstrom pulled, Johansson curled from behind the net and slid the puck in front of the crease. It bounced off the skate of Dave Tretowicz or Bret Hedican and dribbled past LeBlanc at 19:39. Still, it did little to diminish his effort or the achievement of his surprising teammates. And tonight they play France.