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Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Updated: February 25, 10:49 AM ET
Sacrifice, patience pay off for U.S.

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- You can talk all you want about patience and sacrifice but until you see it, until you see players standing in front of shots, taking a hit along the boards to clear the puck, not panicking even when your Olympic tournament life hangs in the balance, then you don't really know if you possess those qualities.

Ron Wilson
Ron Wilson was proud of his team's ability to stick to the game plan.

In the moments after the United States' 2-0 quarterfinal victory over plucky Switzerland, head coach Ron Wilson took his players straight to their dressing room and told them he was proud of them.

Proud not necessarily for being 4-0 in this wildly entertaining Olympic hockey tournament and now having two cracks at a medal starting with Friday's semifinal game against Finland. But mostly proud for sticking with the plan, for not buckling when it might have been easier to do so.

Wilson said that he told them "that we were really proud of them for not ever losing their cool or allowing our expectations of beating the Swiss to get in the way of executing our plan."

This is a team about which much was unknown when the tournament started.

Perhaps too young, too thin down the middle, too vulnerable along the blue line. Perhaps.

Not all those questions have been answered but now, the Americans, the youngest team in the tournament, have answered enough to become something of a sensation instead of the afterthought most believed they would be at the outset.

"If you had said at the beginning of the tournament that we'd be 4-0 and the No. 1 seed, everybody would say you are on crack or something," Wilson said.

Wednesday afternoon the Americans won a game that could easily have gotten away from them.

They played their game, crashing, banging, putting pucks on net, and through the first period it was scoreless as Swiss netminder Jonas Hiller was flawless in turning aside all 18 shots he faced.

The Swiss, meanwhile, recorded just four shots.

In the second period, the Americans wobbled slightly. Their power play looked for all the world like a Toronto Maple Leafs power play.

Wilson suggested that perhaps his players began trying to do too much, each trying to be the hero himself.

"We got into that hero mentality -- I'll be the guy who scored this goal and sticking -- handling through a minefield and instead of making a great play, all you are doing is stepping on a mine and blowing yourself and a few others up around you."

As time wound down in the second period, Hiller batted the puck into his own net but the clock had zeroed out.

Still scoreless after two periods.

Jonas Hiller
Jonas Hiller shut out the Americans for two periods.

So, this is just where the Swiss wanted to be: playing for a break, a power play, a turnover. They had pushed Canada to a shootout playing this way and there was a sense that perhaps the Americans would fall prey to their trap as well.

Yet the third period started with a terrific push from the U.S. squad and finally, 2:08 into the third frame, Zach Parise scored on the power play to give the Americans a 1-0 lead.

It was a dirty goal, coming off a scramble in front of Hiller with Team USA captain Jamie Langenbrunner bulling his way to the net. It was the kind of goal the Americans have consistently scored throughout the Games.

A couple of minutes later, though, a sharply angled shot by the Swiss hit U.S. netminder Ryan Miller's stick and caromed toward the net. There was no signal from the on-ice officials and the play went on, but it was clear the Swiss felt they had scored. So did many in the press box and in the stands.

As the play continued, Ryan Suter blasted a high shot past Hiller for what would have been a 2-0 lead. But referee Peter Orszag had his hand in the air signaling a penalty to the U.S. A review of the Swiss goal/no goal revealed the puck had actually struck the inside of the post and stayed out.

"I thought they scored, that puck that hit the post because there was no sound," Wilson said. "Then we score and take a penalty, that's the double whammy.

"That was the hardest part of the game, waiting a minute while they review the play."

At the end of the day those are the moments, the ups and downs that might signal the unraveling of a young, inexperienced team.

During the ensuing Swiss power play, though, Chris Drury blocked a shot, the rebound of which cleared the zone. Tim Gleason took one in the foot and came up hobbling but stayed in position.

"Didn't feel it. Nope," Gleason deadpanned after.

How does it feel now?

"Awesome. All good," he said.

Zach Parise
Zach Parise's third-period goal finally opened up the game.

Who knew it would go this way.

Gleason was a late add to the roster when Mike Komisarek and Paul Martin had to bow out due to injury.

Drury had another strong game, even though there has been much discussion about whether he belongs on the team or not.

"It's huge. That's what I said when the team was picked -- we were looking for balance, not all All-Stars, guys who you don't have to twist their arm to get into a shooting lane. We have a lot of guys on our team that do that for a living," Wilson said.

"Chris Drury, who unanimously shouldn't be on our team if the media picked the team, blocked more shots than you guys probably make typos and that's a phenomenal number. We 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 do their thing, everybody starts doing it, and that's a special thing we have going right now with our team," Wilson said.

Who knows where this ends up now?

Two cracks at a medal. The gold medal in sight.

Defenseman Brooks Orpik plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It took three years for the Penguins to morph from ascending young team to a Stanley Cup champion.

He is part of something here that has been wildly accelerated.

"That's unique because this is a team that's thrown together. You get one practice together," he said.

Guys don't know each other, he said.

And no matter how you say it, it's hard to ask for things like sacrifice and patience from strangers.

"But you do see those guys, even though they don't know each other very well, sacrificing a lot for them," Orpik said.

Who knew.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.