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U.S. hockey team is 3-0

This isn't 1980, and it's not Lake Placid. Don't expect "Miracle on Ice II." It's okay to gas up the Olympic bandwagon, but let's not crank quite yet. Even if, here in the snowy Alps, there are 1992-model Americans playing feisty, smart and thus-far-victorious hockey.

Finland was an imposing obstacle Thursday, with 10 former National Hockey Leaguers.

"We know the Finns are sensational head-to-head players on wide-open ice," said Scott Young, a developing U.S. hero, "so our scheme was to scrap 'em hard in tight quarters and not make the big faux pas."

It worked like a Meribel charm, as the underdog Yanks (3-0) outworked, outhit and outscored heretofore undefeated Finland 4-1. Young scored twice, and goalie Ray LeBlanc from the U.S. professional bush leagues had another heroic game with 29 saves.

Their victims were flabbergasted. "Finland didn't show up with much respect for us," said Clark Donatelli, the U.S. captain. "In practices, we thought we saw their players snickering at us."

Thursday evening, smirks were gone. It was so quiet in the losers' locker room that you could've heard a Finn drop.

"While the Americans played superbly, and with a big attitude," said coach Sakari Pietila, "we were weak in front of the U.S. goal and made stupid mistakes that you cannot afford at the Olympic level."

Finland's lineup included former NHL standouts Mikko Makela of the New York Islanders and Kari Eloranta of the Calgary Flames and one-time Vancouver Canucks goal-scoring leader Petri Skriko. It became 1-1 when Makela made two dazzling moves against U.S. defenseman Ted Drury and goaltender LeBlanc to score, but the Yanks dominated thereafter.

Even so, let's not rush to chill American champagne. Czechoslovakia and the Unified Team (i.e. Russia and Co.) are the two most gifted hockey contingents in picturesque Meribel. Sweden seems to have a talent edge on the United States, and so too may Canada.

But, when nastier opposition appears, if it'll become "Play it again, Uncle Sam" in the spirit of the virtuoso effort against Finland, this U.S. team will be both competitive and fun to watch.

Next up is Poland (0-3), and unless somebody slips the Yanks a Saturday mickey, that'll be easy puckings. Then it gets salty, beginning Monday with Sweden (3-0) in the final preliminary-round game.

Four teams from each of the two six-team pools advance to the medal round. Canada, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and the United States have already clinched berths. In the quarterfinals, each first-place team plays the fourth-place team in the opposite pool and the seconds play the thirds.

Gold medal? It would indeed be "Miracle on Ice II." Silver? They're maybe 20-to-1 longshots. Bronze? Okay, there's a legitimate U.S. shot at winding up No.

3, especially since lightning can so easily strike once the Olympics reach the quarterfinals and a single-elimination format.

"Four years ago, I was on a U.S. Olympic hockey team that finished a disappointing seventh place at Calgary," said Young, a 24-year-old former Boston University forward who spent the second half of last season as a member of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

"It's great personally to get a second Olympic life. Such a wonderful experience, hearing fans chanting "U.S.A.!' and seeing flags wave in the stands so far from home. We're going to do a lot better in 1992."

There's not a more captivating story among the yet-to-be-beaten Americans, nor a more modest and quieter subject, than the 27-year-old LeBlanc. After spending last season with the minor-league (IHL) Indianapolis Ice and Fort Wayne Komets, LeBlanc stopped 46 shots in a 2-0 win over Germany and then fended off 29 of Finland's 30 slaps at the net.

"It's been quite a thrill here," LeBlanc said. An American reporter suggested Ray is becoming a big name among people watching on TV in the United States. "Gee, I have never thought about being called a hero," said LeBlanc, who has two small children. "I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do, stabbing at pucks."

In the weeks leading to Meribel, LeBlanc once asked U.S. coach Dave Peterson for two days off "to go home and paint my house." Peterson wondered why the fellow from Fitchburg, Mass., didn't hire the job done.

LeBlanc told his Olympic coach the $1,500 was more than a career minor-leaguer could afford.

Even at 27, might the next step be the NHL? The NHL at last? For Ray LeBlanc, that would be the miracle on ice.

Top-seeded Sweden (3-0) got first-period goals from 40-year-old NHL veteran Borje Salming, Mikael Johansson and Patrik Erickson and held Germany (0-3) scoreless after that to win 3-1 and join the United States atop Group A.

Also Thursday, Italy (1-2) kept alive its medal-round hopes with a 7-1 win over Poland (0-3).

Up next:On the mend

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