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Americans tied Ukraine but looked like losers

5/10/2005

INNSBRUCK, Austria – Zach Parise, crushed by his failure to win an international hockey game for his country with the winning goal in his hands, nonetheless held his poise – and sense of humor – in the moment.

Parise, the completely bizarre choice of Team USA head coach Peter Laviolette to take a penalty shot against Ukraine on Monday with 1:25 left in the third period and the score tied, tried to execute a tricky move on which he would fake a wrist shot, then try to score on the backhand.

It didn't work.

When a Canadian radio reporter suggested it appeared as though he changed his mind in the middle of penalty shot, Parise quipped: "Well, I guess I fooled you."

Good answer, kid, particularly after being put in a very difficult position by Laviolette on a day on which the United States might have dominated its overmatched opponent on the shots-on-goal counter but still ended up settling for an embarrassing 1-1 tie against a country that sits far outside the block of traditional international hockey powers.

The result was truly bizarre for a couple of reasons.

First, the United States played a brilliant game the night before, blasting Sweden 5-1 to hand the Swedes their first loss of the 2005 world championship. After Team USA won a bronze medal last year, coming to this year's event with a revamped, youthful roster seemed to be a stroke of brilliance by GM Don Waddell, and the Americans again looked to be heading toward the medals.

Monday's game, however, delivered a completely opposite message, as though the Americans didn't care about the result. True, beating the Ukrainians wasn't crucial, as this wasn't an elimination game.

But don't you always want to avoid that kind of humiliating outcome? The former Soviet republic, after all, has never even come close to a medal at any major international competition, yet led the United States 1-0 after two periods.

The U.S. junior team, you might recall, found it thoroughly embarrassing to lose to Belarus at this year's world junior tournament in North Dakota, and that kind of result can thoroughly demoralize an otherwise talented squad.

Instead, the Americans went into Monday's game opting not to dress goalie Rick DiPietro, the hero of the Swedish victory, and with the intention of giving Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter lots of ice time, including on the power play.

That made some degree of sense, perhaps, but picking Parise to take the penalty shot even shocked the young forward. The New Jersey Devils prospect was sitting on the bench minding his own business when Ukrainian goalie Kostyantyn Simchuk intentionally pushed the goal off its moorings, an automatic penalty shot under IIHF rules.

Laviolette had established NHL snipers such as Mike Modano, Erik Cole, Mike Knuble and Doug Weight on his bench, but chose not to call their names.

He also had defenseman Andy Roach, a penalty shot specialist who scored two shootout goals for the Americans in last year's tournament, including the one that gave the United States a bronze medal over Slovakia.

But Laviolette had a better idea, or at least a unique one. He turned to Parise, who didn't even make it to Austria until after the tournament had started because his Albany River Rats were still playing in the American Hockey League playoffs.

"I thought it had to be somebody off the ice. I was just sitting there on the bench when it all happened," Parise said. "He looked at me, and I kind of tried to avoid him, and then he gave me the nod to get out there.

"Was I nervous? Very ... why wouldn't I be nervous about it?"

The decision even seemed to catch Waddell off balance, along with other members of the U.S. team.

"Whatever, coach's decision, I guess," Knuble said.

Weight was a lot more outspoken on the matter, stopping just short of out-and-out questioning the coach.

"If you're asking me who I pick, we got a guy [Modano] with 458 goals and pretty damn good shot," Weight said. "And I'm pretty good on breakaways, too.

"The gesture was, 'Go out there, Zach, and go bury it for us.' Maybe Peter was subconsciously telling us, 'Hey, bad game.' I don't know what the motive was, and I'm not going to touch it."

Laviolette explained the decision by saying Parise had international experience, had been involved in shootouts all season in the AHL and had played well on the day.

"I wanted to give the kid a chance," said Laviolette, who then added, "He had as much chance of scoring as anybody else on the bench."

Uh, OK, coach. But then Laviolette seemed to suggest he really wasn't trying all out to win the game, despite the fact that, mathematically, it could have meant finishing ahead of Canada for second place in the pool.

"Whether we got the point or not ... we know we're moving on," he said.

Indeed, during the final 30 seconds of the game, the Americans didn't try to go after the winning goal, choosing instead to just hold the puck in the center ice area, leaving the Ukrainians utterly delighted with the tie and moral victory.

Knuble, for one, was obviously displeased by the result, suggesting his team took the game far too lightly.

"If you just want to show up and play a nice, easy game, it won't work at a tournament like this," he said.

So which U.S. team is the real team? The impressive-looking group that pounded the Swedes into submission with a powerful offensive display, or the team that was life-and-death to beat Latvia and couldn't defeat Ukraine and didn't seem to want to?

Which team will show up against the Czechs in the quarterfinals Thursday?

Part of this might be a function of having such a young, inexperienced team at this year's event. Moreover, it's true that other teams have sandbagged it early in world championships only to turn on the power later.

But this team isn't good enough to take it easy on any country, yet at the same time is good enough if it plays all out to get another medal, maybe even challenge for gold.

Against the Swedes, the Americans looked like world champions.

Against the weak Ukrainians on Monday, they looked like a team that didn't particularly care about winning, led by a coach whose agenda wasn't to win a hockey game and who disrespected veteran players who have been giving their time and effort to USA Hockey for years.

For a team with a new generation of talent looking to the future, it was not a shining moment.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.