SOCHI, RUSSIA – Zach Parise and Ryan Suter entered the quarterfinals of the Olympic hockey tournament with zero points between them.
That’s not a knock against Team USA’s captain and alternate captain. The Wild representatives on the U.S. squad hadn’t played poorly in the three preliminary round games. They just didn’t produce any points.
Not that they seemed overly concerned.
“That’s always nice, but it’s even better to have a victory,” Suter said. “That’s more important.”
The Wild’s $196 million duo found the best of both worlds Wednesday night. Parise scored a goal and Suter added three assists as Team USA advanced into the semifinals with 5-2 victory against the Czech Republic at Shayba Arena.
“It’s always nice to get on the board,” Parise said. “Feel good about yourself a little bit.”
Team USA feels real good about itself at present. Good thing, too, because now comes the heavyweight matchup that likely will determine the eventual champion of this tournament.
The U.S. faces Canada on Friday in the semifinals in a rematch of the 2010 gold medal game in Vancouver, a game the Canadians won in overtime. Canada had to sweat out some anxious moments in a much-closer-than-expected 2-1 victory against Latvia in a game that was played simultaneously in the Bolshoy Ice Dome across the parking lot from the U.S. game.
“It seems like it was inevitable that at some point we would be meeting,” U.S. forward David Backes said. “We traveled 5,000 miles to play each other and we share a long border. That’s the great thing about this tournament. In order to win it, you’re going to have to beat great competition.”
Team USA and Canada are the two best teams remaining after Russia left a nation in mourning and caused its coach to reflect on cannibalism after Finland spoiled the host’s party with a 3-1 victory.
Not saying Russia coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov took the loss hard, but here was his response to a question about his future after the game:
“Well, eat me now,” he said. “You’ll eat me and I’ll be gone.”
Hopefully something got lost in translation on that one. That or the coach might want to lay low for a while. And don’t answer if the caller ID reads: Putin, Vladimir.
Anyway, Team USA provided a walk-in-the-park performance that had a definite Minnesota feel to it. In addition to Suter and Parise’s contributions, Spring Lake Park’s Backes produced a goal and an assist and was the best player on the ice. And former Gopher Phil Kessel added a power-play goal.
Suter had an eventful first period with two assists and an own goal, which tied the score at 1-1. U.S. defenseman Ryan McDonagh attempted to clear a loose puck in front of the goal, but it ricocheted off Suter’s skate and got past goalie Jonathan Quick.
“That stuff happens,” Suter said. “It’s unfortunate, but it happens.”
Suter remained calm as ever and had two key assists in the final 5½ minutes of the period. His second one came on a heads-up play with the final seconds ticking off the clock. Suter fired a shot from the point, the puck bounced off the backboard and Backes scored on a bad-angle shot with 1.8 seconds left in the period for a 3-1 lead.
“I was just shooting for a hole there, trying to get it through,” Suter said. “Luckily, it went off the backboard. I was just trying to miss that first guy, to be honest with you. I’m not that skilled.”
Parise put the game on ice with his power-play goal in the second period, allowing Team USA fans a chance to exhale and scoreboard watch to see if Canada survived.
“I haven’t really seen them play, but just looking at their roster, some of the most talented and best players in the world,” Parise said. “It’s two teams that bring out the best in each other.”
Russia also brought that out of Team USA in that epic game that ended in the eighth shootout. A reporter asked Parise if he’s at all disappointed that the host team got knocked out of the tournament before the semifinals. Parise smiled.
“We’re not upset that they’re out with how good they are,” he said. “When guys like Kovalchuk, Ovechkin and Malkin aren’t in the tournament anymore, it’s pretty nice.”
Just as long as no one eats their coach.