MERIBEL, France -- They were underrated, they have overachieved and they are quickly running out of hockey games.
Team USA is two victories from an Olympic gold medal and one from the bronze.
"It's right there. It's within our reach. We can taste it now," Team USA center Clark Donatelli said yesterday after a 4-1 quarterfinal victory over France. "It's going to take a tough team to beat us. We're for real. We're here to stay. It's our destiny."
If Team USA beats today's Finland-Commonwealth of Independent States winner on Friday, it will play for the gold medal Sunday. If it loses Friday, it will play for the bronze Saturday.
"We don't care who we play," Donatelli said. "We're just going to go out and hit anybody who comes near us. We don't care who we play. . . Russia, Finland, Sweden. We're going to play hard.
"For someone to beat us now, they're going to have to play very disciplined, physical hockey like we do. To beat us now, you're going to have to go like hell and play hard. We have no game plan. We play the same way every night."
And no one has played better the past two weeks than Team USA's Ray LeBlanc, a backup minor league goaltender and a part-time soda machine mechanic.
"We haven't won anything yet," said LeBlanc, who has allowed only eight goals in six Olympic games. "We have no medals in our hand.
"This is fun after we win a game, but that's all it is. I'm not one to analyze. But I really don't believe this whole thing yet."
Yesterday's game figured to be one of Team USA's toughest. It played a 3-3 tie with Sweden the night before, and there wasn't much time for sleep or rest.
At the end of the first period, Team USA trailed France, 1-0.
"We were slow, we were fatigued from the game the night before and, at intermission, Coach [Dave Peterson] yelled and screamed a lot," said Marty McInnis, who scored a goal and assisted on two others. "He gave us a kick in the butt."
Three second-period goals, in less than six minutes, quickly turned the game around.
"I'm just glad it's over," LeBlanc said. "It's after midnight for the second night in a row. Two tough games, no rest. "I'm ready to go to bed."
While fatigue slowed Team USA at the start, it was not surprising France faded fast. The French team was so excited about beating Norway to reach the quarterfinals Sunday that it danced and partied in a disco until 4 a.m. Coach Kjell Larsson even canceled practice the next day.
"Our goal was to reach the quarterfinals," French center Philippe Bozon said. "We knew they were tired. We thought we had a chance."
For about a period they did as Team USA defenseman Moe Mantha put an errant pass on the stick of Stephane Barin, who skated in alone to beat LeBlanc stickside.
Playing without defenseman Greg Brown (broken nose, concussion) and center Ted Drury (bruised knee), Team USA came alive in the second period.
"Once we got that first one, everybody felt great," McInnis said. "It snowballed, and we were on a roll."
Keith Tkachuk poked in a rebound past French goalie Petri Ylonen for a power-play goal and a 1-1 tie in the sixth minute, and Ted Donato scored twice to put Team USA ahead to stay.
Donato scored his first goal when the puck bounced off a French defenseman's skate after McInnis' rush up ice. His second came on a goalmouth stuff, and it deflated the Frenchmen's will for the night.
McInnis' goal off a 2-on-1 break with Donato made it 4-1 with 14 minutes to play. With less than two minutes to play, the teams got chippy and a series of scuffles broke out. Five minor penalties were called -- four against the United States -- and, despite the exchange of punches, no fighting penalties were assessed.
"That's the way we play," Donatelli said. "When the hits are there, we're going to take them."
And they're not going to change now -- not with the success they've had.