VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The best American forward was finally the best Team USA forward.
His name is Zach Parise. His personality is as vanilla as his game is a blend of 39 flavors. If Ryan Miller is the masked face of Team USA -- his marvelous goaltending had the tweeters all asking Do You Believe in Miller-cles? - the freshly scrubbed Parise is the face of American hockey that you can actually see.
And early on the third period Wednesday in the Olympic quarterfinals against the exasperating Swiss, Parise came face-to-face with a six-by-four foot piece of Plexiglas named Jonas Hiller.
The shots were decidedly asymmetrical -- the U.S. had a 32-8 advantage after two periods -- but the numbers on the scoreboard at this moment were perfectly round. Team USA 0, Team Switzerland 0. The Americans had been playing kitchen-sink hockey, throwing everything they had at Hiller, but nothing was going in. Well, one puck had. At the end of the second period, a Ryan Kesler shot wound up in the net when Hiller bumped it in with his left shoulder as the siren sounded. A replay from an overhead angle showed the puck squarely on the goal line as the clock read 0.0. Because the puck was not entirely over the line, there was no goal.
In Switzerland people undoubtedly were saying, in four official languages: "Do you believe in technology. Yes!"
Team USA's disallowed goal could have been the worst possible sendoff to the dressing room. There was the natural deflation of no goal, which meant that group hug on the ice and the first bumps from the bench had to be rescinded. Then there was the prospect of staring for one more period at the human force field down the other end of the ice, always blocking the way after another in the spate of turnovers by a team that took care of the puck the way a teenager takes care of his room. Parise already had clanged a shot off the post, and Hiller had robbed him with a Houdini save off the knob of his goal stick. For the youngest team in the tournament -- average age: 26.5 -- it would have been understandable the players felt that Hiller had crawled into their brains and rewired the synapses.
"You can get a little antsy," American defenseman Tim Gleason said. "He's making every save there was. On the bench we're like, 'Geez. Almost. Almost. Almost.'" But then the most extraordinary thing happened. Nothing. The Americans considered how they had played -- superbly, except for some hiccups in the second period when the U.S. power play turned into a futile exercise in every-man-for-himself -- and how much rubber they had flung at Hiller. Maybe they figured the iron they had been hitting was not the goal post but the horseshoes he had tucked in his pads. So they kept pulling the rope in the same direction, as Team USA general manager Brian Burke likes to say, and finally let an exhausted Hiller hang himself with it.
Twelve seconds after an early Swiss penalty in the third period, defenseman Brian Rafalski, the maestro from the point, wristed a shot towards the net. Jamie Langenbrunner was the relatively big body in front -- the puck seemed to tick his skate -- and Parise, barely 5-feet-10, was the smaller one. Parise corralled the puck in tight and shot it into Hiller's pads, but the puck climbed like a rose on a trellis over Hiller, glancing off the goalie's trapper into the net. This would be categorized as an ugly goal if it were not so beautiful to a team whose self-belief was confirmed.
"It's a relief," Parise said. "It's fun to score in a tight game. Whether it's here or in the NHL, it's always nice in a tight game where you feel like you need a breakthrough. I was really excited after it." Game over, even with 18 minutes left. You know good ol' Switzerland. The Swiss can protect a 1-0 deficit better than any of the remaining quarterfinalists, sitting on Canada's lead not for lack of energy but lack of scoring talent.
In the waning seconds, Parise chipped the puck out of the American zone, chased it down and slid it into the empty Swiss net.
USA 2, Switzerland 0 (RECAP).
"He's working his butt off," Team USA center David Backes said of Parise. " I think he's a little bit frustrated with not getting rewarded for some of his efforts. Tonight, he might've had two posts, a knob of Hiller's stick, another robbery by Hiller ... and then he gets the first goal and the empty netter. So he finally gets rewarded. I think its kind of indicative of the whole game, where we had to keep to it. The same goes for him, and the result is two goals for him and a win in the (quarterfinal) game for the U.S.A."
Ten days ago if you had said the United States would be 4-0 and the top seed and guaranteed to play in a medal game, well, to paraphrase coach Ron Wilson, you would be facing drug charges. But this team has grown up before a nation's eyes. They played like old souls, sacrificing their bodies to block Swiss shots and cocoon Miller, who had a relatively simple 19-save shutout.
"I haven't seen it in a long time, even in the NHL," Gleason said of the myriad blocked shots "Guys were laying down left and right. Guys are getting their nose dirty and that's what wins championships and medals."
"The team that we picked, we were looking for balance, not all-stars, guys who you have to twist their arms to get in a shooting lane," Wilson said. "We've got a lot of guys on our team who do this for a living. Gleason must have blocked six or seven shots. Chris Drury ... blocked more shots than you guys probably make typos in a day, a phenomenal accomplishment. You get the same kind of commitment from Ryan Callahan. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Once one or two of those character people start doing it, everybody does."
The best news for Team USA: there is room to grow. Parise has yet to find any synchronization with first-line center Paul Stastny, who has been curiously ineffective. Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel, the jazziest of the American forwards, have yet to leave an indelible mark on the Olympics.
But with Parise flying and the picket fence of shot blockers willing to get in harm's way, a magical run continues.
Sometimes it's the red, white, and blue. Sometimes it's the red, white, black and blue.