COURCHEVEL, France -- To get to the U.S. Olympic hockey team from Albertville yesterday, you needed to change buses twice and ride 10 minutes up a ski gondola to this old-money resort at the top of the Alps.
There, amid $400 hotel rooms and gentle slopes covered with soft, powdery snow, the Americans practiced for 90 minutes in an industrial-gray rink and pronounced themselves ready to play their renamed and still-bitter-after-all-these-years rival, the Unified Team, in the semifinals of the Olympic hockey tournament today in Meribel.
"It is the most important game that any of the 23 guys on this team will ever play," said U.S. captain Clark Donatelli. "We know the country is going crazy back home. But we're up here on the mountain. We don't hear much. We're just trying to get ready."
The Unified Team is the temporary name under which most of the athletes from the former Soviet Union are competing. The hockey team, which won the gold medal in Calgary, Alberta, four years ago as Soviets, followed the U.S. team onto the practice ice yesterday.
"Call them whatever you want to call them, they're still the Russians to us," Donatelli said. "They're still one of the best teams in the world. We're so close to the gold that we almost can taste it. But we have to get through the Russians, and we know that's going to be tough."
Canada and Czechoslovakia will play in the other semifinal today. The winners will play for the gold medal Sunday. The losers will play for the bronze medal tomorrow.
The United States is the only unbeaten team in the tournament, with five wins and a tie. The Unified Team has five wins and a 4-3 loss to the Czechs.
The game is drawing inevitable comparisons to the Americans' famous upset of the Soviets in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980, but the circumstances are different.
The Unifieds are younger and less skilled than those Soviets. And these Americans play a different style than the 1980 team. That team was small and quick. This team is slower, stronger and more physical. Some opponents have called them dirty.
To win today, the Americans probably will need to clean up their act a bit, stay out of the penalty box and get another huge game from goalie Ray LeBlanc, who has allowed only eight goals and made 199 saves in 360 Olympic minutes.
"If we make penalties, it could be suicidal," said U.S. coach Dave Peterson.
The Americans are tied for third in penalty minutes among the 12 teams in the tournament. But it is the timing of the penalties that is important. They blew a 3-0 third-period lead and were tied by Sweden in large part because they were a man down for much of the period.
"Hopefully," Donatelli said, "you learn from things like that. We're a fair team. We just play hard. We
don't give up anything. But you can't give the Russians a man advantage, or you'll wind up chasing them all over the rink. They're so clever with the puck."
The Soviets won seven of nine Olympic gold medals from 1956 to 1988 (the U.S. team won the other two), but changing politics has changed their hockey. The best Soviet players used to compete in the Olympics, but now most are in the NHL.
But the Unifieds still have emerged as one of the best teams in the tournament. They have scored 32 goals, tied with Canada for the most. And they have converted a third more power plays than any other team.
The Americans rely more on their defense, so there isn't much doubt about how the game will unfold. The Unifieds will control the puck much of the time. The Americans will fill their defensive end and try to score on sudden transitions. It has been their style throughout the Games.
That puts pressure on LeBlanc, but he has delivered under pressure in every game.
"Ray has just come up huge for us," Peterson said.
The assistant coach of Finland, Sakari Pietila, whose team is the only one to play both teams, picked the Unifieds.
"These two teams play different styles," he said. "We thought we could get to the Soviet goalie, but we were wrong. The Americans have a lot of effort, but the Unified Team has great skill."
Regardless, the Americans are in position to play for a medal at some point during the weekend. It has been a superb tournament for a team few picked to win a medal. The Americans won just four of 21 games against NHL competition in pre-Olympic training.
"We're not as surprised as everyone else because we thought we were turning into a pretty good team," Donatelli said. "When we came back [from 3-2 down] in the third period to beat Italy [6-3] in the first game, it got our confidence going. We just took off from there. We're just sky-high with confidence right now."
They'll need to be.
'LeBlank' at a glance
Ray LeBlanc's stats in the 1992 Winter Olympics:
Games played 6
Minutes played 360
Shots faced 207
Goals against 8
Saves made 199
Save percentage 96.13
Goals-against average 1.33
Who's got the edge
Offense The former Soviets have three of the top seven scorers in the tournament and are experts at controlling the puck. They also have the most devastating power play. The U.S. offense is underrated with outstanding balance from each line. Twelve players have scored the 22 goals. Edge: Unified Team.
The Americans have been impressive tying up other offenses in the neutral zone. Their physical style of play could negate the Unified Team's advantage of having outstanding skaters on the attack. The Unified Team defense has been somewhat erratic, a result of the large numbers of very young players trying to stop more experienced opponents. Edge: United States.
Ray LeBlanc has all the stats, including a goals-against average only 1.33. He has stopped 96.13 percent of opponents' shots, but has played every minute of every game and may be weary. The Unified Team also has an outstanding goalie in Mikhail Shtalenkov. The only difference may be that LeBlanc has better defensemen in front of him. Edge: United States.
The ex-Soviet combo of Viktor Tikhonov and Igor Dmitriev have decades of experience between them in coaching Olympic and international games. American Dave Peterson, though, has been the former Soviet Union five times and is a veteran of 10 years of international competition. Edge: Unified Team.