The letters and telegrams came in two piles, each more than six inches high. The only clean spot on many Olympic buses today was where someone had finger-lettered: "U.S. Hockey Team No. 1." There was a message for Jim Craig: Would he please call Sen. Kennedy?

The U.S. Pluckies awoke to find a nation in love with them, media and politicians panting at their heels. They seem to have a better perspective about themselves after beating the Soviets in the Olympics, than the country does.

"I can see how the American people can be excited," goalie Craig said. "But I'm sure everyone will forget if we don't follow through and beat Finland (Sunday morning).

"Now we have pressure. There's so much more at stake. For the first time, we have something to lose."

In its fashion, the Olympic hockey tournament is exasperatingly complex. One matter is clear: if the Americans beat the Finns, they clinch the gold medal. It would be the first U.S. gold medal since the 1960 team, the one that cut a player who would grow up and coach this one -- Herb Brooks.

But a series of circumstances could conspire to not only deny the United States the gold but also any medal at all. Which works quite well for Brooks as he tries to keep the players from allowing the Finns to write finis to a remarkable struggle.

"You've got to hit 'em between the eyes (with the worst possible situation)," Brooks said. "It's like a father chastising a son. You don't like to do it, act like a jerk, although the players will tell you that's easy for me at times.

"It (Sunday) could be a wild day. Usually, the Russians (who will play Sweden) have the gold all wrapped up by now. Now there's a chance they could get nothing. Wouldn't that be something?"

For the first time in the entire tournament, Brooks allowed his players to attend a formal press conference, to share the public glory with them instead of forcing reporters to chase about the postgame crowds and Olympic Village for noncoaching wisdom.

They presented themselves as one would expect, as tough and appealing young men who genuinely enjoy each other's company. They have been together long enough to make parting more sad than they once realized.

Half the team -- 10 players -- has college eligibility left. They quit school about six months ago to begin a journey that included 60 pre-Olympic games and the usual chaos involved with a team making do on a modest budget.

"But this sure beats suiting up with the Toledo Goal Diggers," captain Mike Eruzione said shortly before the Soviet game. He and the other 25-year-old team graybeard, Buzzy Schneider, are the players who tug most at a fan's heart, because they kept playing in the hockey bushes for just this chance.

"We typify the American people," Eruzione said, referring to the entire team but more to himself and Schneider than he realized. "We put on our hard hats, pick up our lunch pails and come to work.

"We were nobodies; now wer're somebodies. So we've got to be careful."

With whom will he play in the NHL? asked a man who had not realized Eruzione already had failed tryouts with the Rangers and Rockies.

"Nobody wants me," said the fellow who scored the winning goal against the best team on earth.

Not after Friday?

The team is an interesting mix of hard faces and cherubs, to the point where a foreign reporter honestly asked Brooks how many of the players shaved. He wasn't sure. And as each player spoke during the first major-league press converence of his life, the others often would chat privately about the secrets their teammate was hiding.

Of the puck he sent into the net for the historic victory, Eruzione said: "They're probably examining it (a sly rreference to the postgame doping test he usually takes as team representative). Mayber there was a flaw in it, to make it dip a little."

The families of the players also have been living a cramped, low-budget life these two weeks. All 40 are in a single house not far from the arena. Somebody asked Eruzione whom his mother was rooming with and he rattled off seven names.

"We feel destined," he said. "Yeah, we were singing 'God Bless America' after the game, but not because of Afghanistan or anything like that. Somebody just started it up."

Late today, the Herb Brooks anti-letdown machine started up.

"We have not won a medal." he said. "we can be right out of it. That's sobering. This euphoria scares hell out of me."

Mark Johnson made him feel slightly better.

"I don't know where we'll get what we need for one more big one," he said, "but we'll find it somewhere. The Russian game was different from the Czech upset. We knew we could beat the Czechs.

"But we were emotionaly drained -- and it showed the next game. We were so pumped up after Friday that I don't know if we're actually tired. All this should carry over to Finland. It's like the Russian game. We gotta go after them. Don't give them a chance to breathe."

Schneider was on the '76 team that lost a game to West Germany it should have won -- and with it the chance at a medal. He thought about that, then looked forward to Sunday and said: "I don't want to end in that situation. If we stay with our system, there's no question we'll come out with the gold medal."