MERIBEL, France -- Now the real work begins.
Having disposed of also-rans Italy and Germany, the unbeaten U.S. Olympic hockey team will face its biggest challenge of the Games today when it plays unbeaten Finland.
Finland, the 12-team tournament's sixth seed, is considered a definite medal contender. The Finns, silver-medal winners in 1988 at Calgary, beat Germany and Poland in their two games so far, scoring a total of 14 goals. They're experienced. They're tough -- nine of their players have played in the NHL -- and they pass the puck extremely well.
This game will be an indicator of how good the fourth-seeded United States really is.
"We beat them in the world tournament last year when we had the pros, but just barely," said U.S. coach Dave Peterson. "And they're a little bit on a mission. Their coach got ripped pretty good last year when they didn't make the medal round in their own country, so I think they're here to try to prove something."
The U.S. team still has something to prove, too. Victories over Italy and Germany will probably be enough to push the Americans into the eight-team medal round, but they didn't exactly punish either team. The United States came back from a one-goal deficit to beat Italy, 6-3, and then shut out Germany, 2-0.
In a way, though, Peterson is grateful for the close games.
"If we had blown some people away, I think we're young enough that we might have taken some things for granted," he said.
Peterson wants the wins to help give the team the right frame of mind, but also because he aspires to the best seed possible in the medal round. He doesn't want to finish fourth in Pool A and draw the top seed in Pool B for the medal-round opener.
Czechoslovakia's victory over the Unified Team last night showed how competitive and unpredictable this tournament can be.
Of course, the United States has one thing going for it: a hot goaltender. Ray LeBlanc, the hero of the victory over Germany on Tuesday when he made 46 saves and recorded the first U.S. shutout since 1964, will be the goalie again today. LeBlanc, on loan from the International Hockey League, has a 1.50 goals-against average and a 95.65 saver percentage.
On offense, the Americans have been led by Tim Sweeney, on loan from the NHL's Quebec Nordiques. He has one goal and two assists. The United States, which will need balanced scoring to succeed in this tournament, has received goals from eight different players.
"I think we're an easy team to get up for," said American wing Jim Johannson. "I guess we have a way of angering our opponents. But I'd be disappointed if teams weren't up to play us."
After today, the United States plays Poland on Saturday and Sweden on Monday. The medal-round quarterfinals begin Tuesday.