VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The longer it went, the tighter the Americans got.
They clanged shots off the post, then the crossbar. A wrist shot early in the game by Phil Kessel that looked like a bad omen hit both. Everything else the United States hockey team threw on net Wednesday, Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller smothered.
But Zach Parise put all that frustration aside, deflecting a wrist shot from Brian Rafalski early in the third period, then scored into an empty net late to seal a 2-0 quarterfinal win that sends the U.S. to the next round against the winner of Wednesday night’s game between the Czech Republic and Finland.
“Relief and excitement, especially in a tight game like that when you are doing everything but score,” said Parise, who failed to score on his first 13 shots of the tournament. “The goalie was great and we did a good job of sticking with it. “We were pretty confident and said just keep putting pucks at him.”
Ryan Miller made 19 saves to backstop the victory and move the Americans within two wins of its first men’s hockey gold medal in 30 years.
For a while, though, there was a chance their stirring 5-3 win over Canada on Sunday might go for naught. U.S. general manager Brian Burke said he wasn’t happy with his team’s play through the preliminary round, and cautioned that the Americans had to improve quickly if they hoped to make a run.
He was right. Only the challenge came from the lightly regarded Swiss and not from tournament favorites Canada, Russia or defending Olympic champion Sweden.
The wait for production from the top scoring line ended just in time.
“I thought after the first two or three games I could play better. I knew I would,” said Parise, who had no goals and three assists in the opening three games. “It’s always nice to get rewarded. I just kept wanting to keep shooting.”
In front of a full crowd that traded chants for each team, Hiller gave the Swiss a chance to pull off the upset by making 42 saves. He had stymied Parise several times earlier, but couldn’t keep the New Jersey Devils star down all the way.
Parise, the top-line forward who struck posts with two other shots, got a stick on Rafalski’s shot and bounced it off the mask and arm of Hiller before the puck sneaked past his pad and inside the left post 2:08 into the third. The goal came 12 seconds into a power play.
He then sealed the win by scoring into an empty net with 11.2 seconds left. The U.S. has earned two of its four wins in these games against Switzerland, including a tournament-opening 3-1 victory last Tuesday.
Switzerland seemed to tire as the game wore on. The upstarts, who forced Canada to a shootout in the prelims, reached the quarters with another tiebreaker win over Belarus on Tuesday. Switzerland was forced to play past regulation in its previous three games.
Despite only two regular NHL players, the Swiss were gallant in longtime coach Ralph Krueger’s last Olympics. Switzerland finished sixth four years ago in the Turin Games and was looking for its best showing in Canada.
“We had high expectations,” the teary-eyed Hiller said, his voice cracking. “We knew we had a solid team and we can upset some of the big ones and that’s what we tried to do. I wish we could have upset them a little more.
“It’s always tough to lose, but losing in the quarterfinals in the Olympics and being that close, it definitely hurts. I am quite disappointed right now.”
Until Parise scored, the signature moment in this one was a near goal the U.S. thought it scored to break the deadlock with less than one second left in the middle period.
Ryan Kesler’s shot struck Hiller’s blocker and popped in the air. The Anaheim Ducks goalie swatted it with his stick and deflected it off his shoulder before it fell behind him.
The puck tantalizingly slid onto the goal line and toward the net as the clock struck 0.0. A video replay confirming no goal sent the pro-Swiss crowd into jubilation as the teams headed to the dressing rooms.
“I thought I scored,” Kesler said “I thought it was in and we were going into the locker room up 1-0 but apparently the time ran out and I wasn’t lucky enough. I knew there wasn’t much time left and I just tried to throw it on net to generate a rebound and it happened to find the back of the net a half-second too late.”
A wild sequence in the third had both teams believing they had scored.
At 3:40, Sandy Jeannin sent a wide-angled shot that appeared to beat Miller inside the right post. The red light came on, but play continued. Before the next whistle, Ryan Suter fired a shot past Hiller. That goal was disallowed because of a high-sticking penalty against teammate Ryan Kesler.
Even with the benefit of three power plays in the second period, the U.S. couldn’t forge much of an attack. The Americans’ best scoring chances came at even strength, but when they wound up for drives in good areas many of their shots were blocked before they got to Hiller.
“I haven’t seen that for a long time, even in the NHL,” defenseman Tim Gleason said. “Guys are laying down left and right. That’s good to see and you hope they get right back up. Guys are getting their nose dirty, and that’s what wins championships and medals.”
The Swiss were content to clog the middle and contest every pass and each puck carrier as he tried to get into the offensive zone. Bobby Ryan rushed toward the blue line before being upended with a hip check by Mathias Seger that flipped him with 5:15 left in the second.
“We waited and waited and waited, and I guess we waited them out,” Gleason said. “We got a little antsy ... you want to do it yourself and you get frustrated.”
The only thing that got into either net in the opening two periods was Dustin Brown’s stick that was stuck in the back of the Swiss goal.
Switzerland generated only eight shots on Miller through 40 minutes while allowing 32. Hiller kept the Swiss in the game during the first period when the Americans held an 18-4 shots edge.
Passing was a problem on the uneven ice that kept pucks bouncing. Parise had three prime scoring chances, but was twice denied — including once with the U.S. short-handed — and had a 2-on-1 with Devils teammate Jamie Langenbrunner broken up. Kessel later fired a drive that struck the right post and crossbar behind Hiller.
NOTES: The two previous times the Americans won on Feb. 24 they captured the gold medal (1960 and 1980). ... Forwards Brown and Chris Drury played in their 50th international game in a U.S. uniform.
CANADA 7, RUSSIA 3 — A dominating Canada ended 50 years of Olympic hockey frustration against Russia.
The Canadians got a goal and two assists from Dan Boyle during a take-charge first period to beat the world champions and surge into the Olympic semifinals.
A superpower showdown — one that may have been better suited for the gold-medal game than the quarterfinals — quickly became a super letdown.
The physical, focused Canadians took advantage of terrible goaltending by Evgeni Nabokov and superior depth and size to open leads of 3-0 and 4-1 in the first period and 6-1 early in the second period, and the unexpected rout was on.