MERIBEL, France -- You knew who was going to win when the crowd stopped cheering. When stone-dead silence replaced the sound of "Allez, la France" -- Go, France -- in the Olympic hockey arena, you knew the United States was putting an end to any French designs on a miracle.
The arena did rock for 25 minutes. The Americans were tired and cranky. The French, inspired, scored the first goal and spent a lot of time around the American net. But then in came a six-minute volley of three American goals, and out went the French resistance.
The Americans' 4-1 victory wasn't artful, and even got ugly in the end. But no one cared. The United States is in the medal-round semifinals, where on Friday it plays the winner of today's game between Finland and the Unified Team.
To put it simply: The United States is two wins from a gold medal.
"It's starting to taste pretty sweet," forward Clark Donatelli said. "We're close enough now that we can touch it. But we can't think about that. Not yet."
The Americans, considered at best long shots for a bronze medal when the Olympics began, are one of only two teams that hasn't lost a game. They're 5-0-1. A loss to underdog France would have knocked them out and undermined their surprising success.
It wasn't an impossibility, considering that the Americans had played a tough, emotional game against Sweden the night before, and France was rested, inspired and playing at home. But the French went down easily once they had fallen behind.
"It was our goal to make the quarterfinals, so we already had achieved our goal before the game," France's Phillipe Bozon said. "We had no pressure. The Americans were tired in the first period. But then they got going and played a great game."
The goal that got the United States going was scored 5:43 into the second period by Keith Tkachuk, on a rebound. He gathered the puck in front of the net, drifted to his left and flipped the puck past France's Petri Ylonen.
"And that woke us up," said U.S. forward Marty McInnis. "We came in after the first period [down 1-0] and Coach [Dave Peterson] gave us a good yelling. Maybe it kind of woke us up. But the goal really did."
It must have, for McInnis and Ted Donato teamed on two more goals in the next six minutes.
The first was on another rebound, with the French arguing that Donato had kicked it in. Then McInnis stole the puck at mid-ice, skated in on the goal and gave Donato a perfect two-on-one pass. Donato filled the net and the night of French singing was over.
In many ways, the game was a summation of what this American team is all about: resourcefulness and defense. The French took more than twice as many shots (36-17), but the Americans' defense was solid and the offense created enough chances.
As well, U.S. goalie Ray LeBlanc was again superb. His 35 saves gave him 80 in the past two nights and 199 in six games. On this night, he made his customary couple of saves that no one could believe. The night's prizewinner was a point-blank slap shot late in the second period.
"At this point, we're used to seeing Ray do that stuff back there," McInnis said.
The game was drifting to a quiet close when suddenly a series of fights broke out in the last six minutes. The Americans appeared to be mostly at fault. They were called for six penalties in the last six minutes and finished the game with three players on the ice to France's six.
"I don't know why they had to play like that suddenly at the end," Bozon said. "They had us down and the game was over and suddenly this fighting. It doesn't make any sense to me."
McInnis dismissed it. "Things like that happen in hockey," he said. "We're getting a reputation as a dirty team, and I don't think it's right at all. Not that we care about our reputation. We just play good, hard hockey. Maybe we were tired."
Donatelli added: "Any team that plays us is going to have to pay a price if they want to win. By that I mean we're going to work hard, so they better, too."
The Americans have two days to rest before playing again Friday, and the players all said they greatly welcomed it. They have played six games in 10 days. LeBlanc, in particular, looked weary by the end yesterday. He was called for a two-minute penalty at the end for slashing.
"I just want to go home and go to sleep," he said. "I feel like I might sleep for 48 straight hours. That's great. We've got some big hockey games coming up."