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Late-rising U.S. team skates by France 4-1

French fanatics had come as human flags, their faces painted with patriotic bars of red, white and blue. Four women in Section H similarly dyed their hair for the homeland.

Natives were chanting, "Allez la France," or hooray for our side. Their underdog Olympic hockey players were inspired. Home boys began to believe they were Les Gretzkys.

For 25 minutes of Tuesday night's quarterfinal against the United States, the French came in tidal waves against American goalie Ray LeBlanc. Eventually a Stephane Barin puck filtered through for a 1-0 lead.

A fight broke out in the stands. A U.S. fan was sparring with a Frenchman. Gendarmerie intervened, ejecting the Yank from Meribel's arena while permitting the local brawler to keep his seat.

A harbinger of Tuesday night nastiness to come on the Olympic ice.

But, for the moment, France was on a sweet roll. American players were sluggish and skating with heavy legs, understandably tired from a fierce 3-3 war with Sweden just 24 hours before.

A bloke dressed as Majique, the silly-looking mascot of these Savoie Olympics, went from section to section in the grandstand beating a bass drum to spur the painted faces.

It worked until with five minutes elapsed in the second period. It was as if the Americans had gotten a wake-up call.

"Good evening. It's 10:15 p.m. and you're losing to France!"

Arnaud Briand went crashing into three U.S. players and was sent to hockey jail for charging. Presto! The Americans pounced to life and the French long shots were soon to be fried.

Keith Tkachuk quickly scored on a rebound, the U.S. power play making it 1-1. Three minutes later, the now-alert Americans went up 2-1 as Steve Heinze flicked in a goal. Three minutes more and it was 3-1 as Marty McInnis beautifully fed Ted Donato for an easy shot in the French goal mouth.

Turn out the lights France's party was over.

Paint began to run on French faces. Their heroes on the ice no longer resembled Wayne Gretzky. They had turned back into Laporte, Pousse, Poudrier, Bozon, Saunier and hopeless.

France never scored again, the combative Americans (5-0-1) won 4-1 to fly into the Olympic semifinals. The only blemish for the U.S. team came on a 3-3 tie Monday with Sweden.

Friday, the United States meets the winner of today's match between Finland and the Unified Team (i.e., Russia and Co.). Does it all sound familiar?

Twelve years and three Winter Olympics ago, the U.S. team suffered only a tie with Sweden in the Lake Placid Games before a memorable semifinal upset of the Soviet Union, and then a gold medal.

Faces and the locale have changed, not to mention the world. But there's sure to be at least a lukewarm case of deja vu if it's the Americans against the erstwhile Soviets on Friday.

If the United States wins one more Meribel game, it will secure its first Olympic hockey medal since Lake Placid. Two victories wins the gold.

That still appears a long shot, but not as unlikely as a U.S. championship heading into that 1980 semifinal against the supposedly unbeatable U.S.S.R.

These Americans skate with admirable speed, score mostly on rebounds and pure hustle, but their hallmark has to be their scrappiness. They are rugged almost to a fault. Hockey is a tough, fiery game, but these 1992-model Yanks are too much into cheap shots and creating needless scuffles.

The Sweden game finished with opposing coaches cursing at each other and both teams leaving the ice pointing fingers rather than shaking hands.

Tuesday night against France ended with a near-farcical appearance. In the final two minutes, the Americans had four players in the penalty box. After the horn, the junk continued, with both French and Americans qualifying for gold medals in childishness.

It's easy to say, "That's just hockey." But I'd sooner see a Friday semifinal that's played hard and smooth, with an ending that sees sporting gentlemen shaking hands.

But maybe that's asking too much.

Canada wins in shootout

MERIBEL, France _ Canada beat Germany in the first penalty-shot shootout in medal-round history. The score was tied 3-3 after a 10-minute overtime. Canada won the shootout 3-2 and the quarterfinal when Eric Lindros scored and Sean Burke stopped Peter Draisaitl's attempt.

The Canadians play in Friday's semifinals against the winner of today's game between Sweden and Czechoslovakia.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.