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Rising star LeBlanc blanks Germans, 2-0 Goalie stops 46 shots in NHL-like outing


MERIBEL, France -- The overnight sensation is as much an Olympic standard as the five interlocking rings. The Games are famous for, well, for making obscure people famous.

Now comes a new variation on the theme, another byproduct of the professionalization of the Games. Now comes the career minor-leaguer -- tough and bitter and still looking for his shot in the bigs -- suddenly having his Olympic star rise.

Now comes Ray LeBlanc, Team USA's goalie, who stopped 46 German shots yesterday to lead the Americans to a 2-0 victory that kept them undefeated in the round-robin phase of the Olympic hockey tournament.

"Maybe this will help me get a look [in the NHL]," said LeBlanc, 27, of Fitchburg, Mass., who works in a Pepsi factory in the off-season and has spent the past seven seasons in the minor leagues, the last four with the Indianapolis Ice of the International Hockey League.

The Ice's man was terrific yesterday, stopping 21 shots in the first period alone. The Germans had more scoring chances than the Americans, but LeBlanc kept the net empty, and teammates Marty McInnis and Ted Donato scored power-play goals early in the second period and midway through the third.

"They pretty much picked us apart in the first period, but Ray held us in there," Team USA coach Dave Peterson said. "He saved two or three there that were ticketed for the goal. Then we just hung in there."

The Americans put their 2-0 record on the line tomorrow against unbeaten Finland in a game that should better establish their substance. They have beaten two teams, Italy and Germany, picked to finish below them.

Having a hot goalie can make a big difference, though, and LeBlanc was hot yesterday. He stopped shots with every piece of his padding and his stick. In one second-period sequence, he stopped a low slap shot and then blocked the rebound. Both were goals-in-the-making.

"On some of the saves you just shook your head and said, 'Did he really stop that?' " said Team USA's Moe Mantha, who assisted on the first goal. "It was awesome, no doubt about it. When I saw one hit his stick instead of go in, I knew it was one of those nights."

LeBlanc hasn't had a night that compares, but then you don't have many shots at the bright lights when you spent most of your career with the Ice and the Flint Spirits. He got to sit on an NHL bench for the first time this year -- for one game with the Chicago Blackhawks. He didn't play, then went right back to Indianapolis.

"Sure it gets hard, kind of frustrating at times," he said. "I give a lot of credit to my wife and two kids. I can come home and forget about it. That's really what's enabled me to keep going. That, and never knowing what'll happen if you keep working."

He was getting ready for another season in Indianapolis last fall when his coach heard about an opening for a goalie on Team USA. His coach suggested he try.

"I thought about it for a couple of days, and it really made sense for me," he said. "It's a good opportunity, a fantastic opportunity to get to represent my country in the Olympic Games."

Pros couldn't play hockey until the Games in Calgary, Alberta, four years ago, but now most of the teams here have three or four pros. It certainly puts a different spin on the Olympic ideal.

"I hope the Blackhawks are here monitoring me," LeBlanc said. "I'm sure they are. It's my dream to play in the NHL. Hopefully, I'll get there. All I can do is just try to keep doing my best."

His best was more than enough last night, although he did have help. The Germans blew a couple of fine chances in the third period, when they were still just down a goal. Michael Schmidt fanned from 10 feet after LeBlanc had committed to his knees, and then Georg Holzmann missed a perfect centering pass.

It didn't matter, though. The Americans avenged a ruinous 4-1 loss to Germany in Calgary, and they're already all but assured a place in the medal round. Four of the six teams in the two round-robin groups will advance to an eight-team knockout draw.

The Americans have won six straight games and eight of nine, including their last exhibitions leading up to the Olympics.

"We're on a roll, no doubt about it," Mantha said. "We have a lot of confidence right now. Having a hot goalie sure helps."

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