MERIBEL,FRANCE — MERIBEL, France -- They were this close: tied with 10 minutes left, their goalie hot, their opponent frustrated, their fans filling the little rink with cheers, cowbells and designs on a gold medal no one had envisioned.
They were this close: outskated, outplayed and out-everything, just blown away, but still tied with 10 minutes left. As close as one shot from the lead. One opening. One sudden chance. That close. One break.
"Everyone was saying, 'We're so close, we're right there,' " said Sean Hill, a defenseman on the U.S. Olympic hockey team. "And everything just blew up."
Ka-boom. The Unified Team scored three goals in the last 10 minutes and left the ice with a 5-2 victory yesterday in the semifinals of the Olympic hockey tournament.
"This is probably the biggest disappointment of a lot of the guys' entire lives, much less just their hockey lives," said American Ted Donato. "It hurts bad to come this close to the gold."
The Unified Team -- a temporary name for the former Soviet Union -- plays Canada for the gold medal tomorrow afternoon. The Americans, after losing for the first time in these Olympics, play Czechoslovakia for the bronze medal at 3 p.m. today.
Canada defeated the Czechs, 4-2, in the other semifinal yesterday. The Unified Team defeated Canada, 5-4, in the round-robin portion of the tournament last week.
Fast skating and elegant stickhandling had the Unifieds in complete control yesterday. The Americans were outshot 55-18, and remained competitive only by the sheer magic of goalie Ray Le- Blanc, among whose 50 saves were at least a dozen that left the crowd gasping.
But that was the Americans' plan, much as it had been their plan throughout their surprising Olympic run. They packed their defensive end, relied on the hot LeBlanc and looked to score on sudden openings. It worked for 50 minutes this time.
Hill was credited with the first U.S. goal, which went in the net off the skate of a Unified defenseman. Marty McInnis scored the second from a crowded pack in the crease. The score was 2-2 after two periods.
"There wasn't a person in this locker room who didn't think we were ready for something big," Donato said.
But then American Moe Mantha was called for tripping midway (( through the period, and 23 seconds later the Unifieds finally converted a power-play opportunity, after five failures. The Unified's Andrei Khomoutov collected a long rebound and flipped the puck over LeBlanc's right shoulder with 9:05 remaining.
The Americans were called for two more penalties in the next six minutes, for slashing and high-sticking, and the Unifieds scored twice more to break open the game. The Americans were furious about the calls of Swedish referee Sven Eric Sold.
"He took the game from us," said American captain Clark Donatelli. "The calls were brutal. He should know the difference between a trip [by Mantha] and a [fake] dive."
U.S. coach Dave Peterson even insinuated that there was a conspiracy of some kind. The Americans feuded with the Swedish team during the tournament, and Peterson said he "was not sure it was a coincidence" that a Swedish referee worked the game.
Regardless, the Americans saw the penalties as decisive.
"There isn't a team in the world that can kill five penalties [it was three] in the last 10 minutes against that team," Donatelli said. "An NHL All-Star team couldn't do it. That was the game. It isn't right. We worked too hard and came too far to let the referee take the game from us."
Added Donato: "If you look at the film you'll see how out of position the referees were. I feel kind of bad talking about it. My dad was a referee. I'm not one to bad-mouth them. But there was something wrong with the amount of penalties we got."
What really was wrong was that the Americans couldn't compete with the Unifieds' brilliant performance. This was a young team that was supposedly inferior to the Soviet teams of the legend of the Big Red Machine. Most of the best former Soviet players are in the NHL. But the Unifieds were as brilliant yesterday as any former Soviet team.
They skated easily past and around the American defenders. Their passes were crisp and accurate. The puck stuck to their sticks. They maneuvered through the American defense much as a basketball point guard driving the lane in traffic.
"They outplayed us today," Peterson said. "A better team beat us."
"Their play wasn't a surprise because we knew about their skill level," said American defenseman C.J. Young. "But we didn't think they'd dominate us like they did. We didn't even touch the puck that much."
True. It was almost as if the Unifieds allowed the Americans to touch the puck every once in awhile just to let them know they were in the game. Otherwise the Americans spent most of their time chasing.
The Americans were concerned beforehand about being able to kill penalties, but the Unifieds often appeared to have a man advantage even when the sides were equal.
LeBlanc was a remarkable equalizer, though. He stopped a half-dozen open shots taken within 10 feet. After facing 139 shots in the last three games, he was too tired to speak to reporters afterward.
"You can't help feeling for the kid," Donato said. "He's been in the minors a long time and this was his chance. He's been so great, he deserved a shot at the gold medal. He won't get it. But I'll tell you what. He was the best goalie in the world here."
Said Soviet assistant Igor Dimitriev: "He was wonderful the whole tournament, but I believe he got mentally tired today. I think the pressure of maintaining his [high] level got to him."
Whether or not that's true, the Unifieds finally succeeded in getting the puck past him. As a result, the Americans will have to wait at least another two years for a chance to reprise their 1980 hockey miracle.