US hockey team pretty good as a warm-up act, too
Turns out Zach Parise and the Americans are a pretty good warm-up act, too.
Three days after overachieving to beat mighty Canada in the most-watched TV program in the nation's history, you could have gotten good odds the U.S. team would come out listless against lowly Switzerland.
For one thing, their quarterfinal match got second billing and was nearly forgotten amid the nonstop hype for the Canada-Russia game later Wednesday. Then the Americans ran into a goalkeeper you'd have trouble getting a pillow mint past, let alone a puck.
On top of that was the freeze-frame moment at the end of the second period when they wound up on the wrong end of a decision that perfectly illustrated what might just be the dumbest rule in sports.
Yet through all that frustration, Parise made sure a very pesky, thoroughly professional U.S. effort didn't go to waste.
``Relief and excitement,'' were the first words out of his mouth after scoring both goals in a 2-0 win that booked the U.S. men a spot in the semifinals. ``Especially in a tight game like that, when you're doing everything but score.''
He is not exaggerating.
The Yanks ran up a 44-19 margin in shots, but ran into Jonas Hiller on what might have been the best afternoon of his life. Late in the first period, the edge was 12-4 in their favor and when winger Phil Kessel clanged a wrister off both the post and crossbar behind Hiller, he'd had as many point-blank chances as the entire Swiss team had shots.
``It definitely hurts,'' Hiller said, near tears and his voice cracking. ``It's tough to lose 1-0 or 2-0.
``Sometimes,'' he added, ``a 5-0 defeat is easier to swallow.''
It might have been 5-0, too, had the refs not correctly applied that stupid rule and waved off what would have been the first U.S. goal. In the closing seconds of the second period, Ryan Kesler threw a shot on net that Hiller popped into the air with his blocker pad and then swatted with his stick.
But instead of caroming away from the net, the puck deflected off his left shoulder and toward the net. Almost in slow motion, Hiller took a futile swipe at the puck - now behind him - with his stick. But it fell to the ice and tantalizingly continued spinning backward toward the goal line.
Then the buzzer sounded.
With the puck in the net and the Americans celebrating what appeared to be a 1-0 lead, the refs looked at the replay. A frame-by-frame analysis showed the puck had not crossed the goal line when the clock flashed ``0.0.'' To U.S. fans familiar with basketball and football - where the score counts if the ball is in the air before the final tick - hockey's version of the continuation rule must seem like a travesty.
``A half-second too late,'' Kesler groaned. His problem was not the rule - it applies in the NHL as well - but the U.S. team's mounting frustration.
Even so, the mood in the locker room between periods was ``still pretty positive,'' Kesler said.
``Seeing that puck go into the back of the net,'' he added, ``the guys knew he was beatable.''
They proved that barely two minutes after the break, when Parise tipped Brian Rafalski's shot from the point straight into Hiller's mask. This time, the goalkeeper swung at the puck with his arm, but wound up deflecting it to his right, watching again helplessly as it trickled slowly into the net behind him.
``It was tough to see the puck go in,'' said Hiller, who plays for the Anaheim Ducks and is one of only two full-time NHL players on the Swiss roster. ``We were close, but not close enough.''
The Swiss also proved a lot tougher than you'd expect a squad with no more than a handful of NHL-sized bodies. Their coach, Ralph Krueger, said Tuesday they would make up the deficit by ``being less timid and getting into their faces.'' And at the start of the third period, with the game still close, his player took the words to heart.
But more, and more violent hits didn't throw the Americans off their game any more than the Swiss packing in their defense for long stretches of the game.
``We kept saying on the bench, 'Don't get frustrated,''' Parise recalled.
They didn't - showing plenty of patience, grit and most important, the kind of determination that shouldn't surprise anyone if they wind up stealing a medal and some very big headlines.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org