Olympics: U.S. squeaks by Swiss to gain semis

But Americans' 2-0 shutout is strongest showing; Finland is next

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- If anything, the United States' 2-0 struggle to slip past Switzerland in the Olympic hockey quarterfinals Wednesday was filled with glowing -- albeit hidden -- positives.

Barely beating an opponent with two NHL players?

No matter. The U.S. delivered its most complete effort of the tournament, including the upset of Canada, and got just enough scoring on left winger Zach Parise's breakthrough goal early in the third period and, later, his empty-netter.

Squeezing only one of 43 shots past Swiss goaltender Jonas Hiller?

No shame there, either. Hiller was, as Swiss defenseman Luca Sbisa put it, "like a brick wall back there." And Hiller is one of those two NHL players, the No. 1 goaltender of the Anaheim Ducks.

Besides, look at it this way: If a goaltender can steal even the most lopsided affair in a single-elimination tournament, as Hiller nearly did here, that would only bolster the Americans' outlook the rest of the way with Ryan Miller, the NHL's finest, in net. Next in the semifinal will be Finland, with a 3 p.m. Friday faceoff -- the Finns beat the Czech Republic, 2-0, late Wednesday night -- and all it takes now for the U.S. to get gold is two wins.

"I feel good about our chances, honestly," Parise said. "We feel good about the way we played, the way we played smart, got pucks in deep, didn't take high risks. That's how you have to play."

U.S. management had been critical of the team's play, even after it finished the preliminary round with the No. 1 seed by going 3-0. General manager Brian Burke said in a stinging news conference Monday that "only about 10 players are pulling the rope."

After this one, coach Ron Wilson, said, "I was perfectly content with the way we were playing. We were controlling the action."

The Americans, indeed, came out storming with a fire and cohesion not previously seen, including the 3-1 opening victory against Switzerland. They peppered Hiller relentlessly and finished with a 44-19 edge in shots. Defensively, just as impressive, their skaters -- not Miller -- blocked 26 of the 52 shots the Swiss tried.

Still, the scoreboard showed all zeroes after two periods.

Hiller made one mistake to that point, accidentally batting Ryan Kesler's attempt into his own net with the final ticks of the second period. But it did not count: The puck crossed the line about a tenth of a second too late, and a video review nullified the goal.

It seemed it could take all day for the U.S. to score, especially given the Swiss' excruciatingly deliberate posture.

"He's making every save there was," American defenseman Tim Gleason said. "Everyone's like, 'Jeez, almost, almost, almost.' "

Parise finally broke through 2:02 into the third on a power play, tipping defenseman Brian Rafalski's shot behind Hiller to make it 1-0.

"That's all Brian," Parise said. "I just got my stick on it."

Rafalski surely deserved credit, but so did Wilson.

The Swiss were aware that Rafalski had been the Americans' star, with four goals from the blue line in the first three games, and assigned their wingers to cover not only Rafalski but all U.S. point men. Shots were blocked left and right.

On that U.S. power play, though, left and right was taken away: Rafalski slid to center point in a diamond formation, and his low wrister reached the back of Parise's blade, and the puck hopped by Hiller.

"I finally got a good look there," Rafalski said.

Switzerland pressured a bit down the stretch, but Miller made 11 of his 19 saves in the third, and Parise's empty-netter with 11.2 seconds left sealed it.

For the Swiss, a victory would have been their nation's greatest in hockey. It also would have been a great credit to Hiller, who took Canada to a shootout and was superb Tuesday even though his team had to play less than 24 hours earlier.

Hiller visibly took the loss hard, his voice quivering as he spoke with reporters.

"This hurts," he said. "I'm definitely disappointed. I feel bad for the whole team right now."

Miller might have taken the right message from his counterpart's performance.

"I think a team takes on the personality of its goaltender, and you saw that with the Swiss today, how persistent they were," Miller said. "Me, I'm a more laidback guy. I pride myself in staying calm in tough situations. Well, the games are about to get even tougher. We need to do even better."

Of the two Americans with local ties: Left winger Ryan Malone, an Upper St. Clair native, had no points but played far better than in the previous game, during which Wilson benched his line for long stretches. And Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik again was solid in his pairing with Jack Johnson.

The U.S. semifinal will be shown live on NBC, the network announced Wednesday.

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at our Kovacevic at the Olympics blog. First Published February 25, 2010 5:00 AM


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