Solid effort leads U.S. into semifinals
SOCHI -- While their neighbors to the north were fighting to stay alive in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the United States men's hockey players were methodically going about their business without any drama or suspense across the street at Shayba Arena.
The United States did its part with a dominating 5-2 win against the Czech Republic thanks to monster games from Ryan Suter and David Backes. Eventually, Canada complied by finishing off upstart Latvia at Bolshoy Ice Dome to set up the rematch that pits rival hockey nations separated only by the border patrol against one another for the right to play for the gold medal.
Four years ago in Vancouver they met in the gold-medal game and Canada came away with the hardware. On Friday at Bolshoy Ice Dome they'll try to ruin each other's dream of getting to the top of the medal stand here.
"This was certainly one I think we all wanted and possibility looked to," U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said after a long, dramatic pause as he thought about playing Canada. "You don't want to get ahead of yourself. We knew we were going to have some big games prior to this point in time, but you were looking forward to the possibility of this rematch and now we have it in the semifinals. I know our group and our guys are ready for it and looking forward to it. We certainly had to win some hockey games and do well before this point, but now we have the rematch with the Canadians."
They do because for the fourth time in as many games the U.S. responded when faced with some in-game adversity.
James van Riemsdyk gave the Americans a 1-0 lead just 1:39 into the game with a shot that went in off of goalie Ondrej Pavelec's pad, but the Czechs turned the momentum around quickly. They played fast and were winning all the loose battles for pucks, particularly in the U.S. defensive zone.
Ales Hemsky was credited with a goal less than three minutes after van Riemsdyk scored, even though it was technically a clearing attempt by Ryan McDonagh that went in off of Suter.
At that point the Americans reset and essentially restarted. By the end of the first period they had a 3-1 lead on goals from Dustin Brown and Backes, who scored the backbreaker with 1.8 seconds remaining.
"I thought we did a great job with our mentality and did a great job with our play," Bylsma said. "We kept going forward. We've seen that now from our team a couple of different times."
Such as after Slovakia scored early in the second period to tie the game 1-1 in the U.S. tournament opener. The Americans responded by scoring six unanswered goals for a 7-1 win.
They also had to withstand an early goal in the second and a late score in the third from Russia before beating the now-eliminated hosts in a made-for-TV shootout.
The drama of that game could have carried over to Sunday and forced the Americans into a letdown against Slovenia, but they scored twice in the first five minutes to erase any concerns en route to a 5-1 win.
On Wednesday, it was the combination of Backes and Brown that delivered the early knockout punch to the Czechs.
Backes delivered a brilliant, tape-to-tape seam pass out of the right corner to Brown for a one-timer from below the left circle that he wired into the net. Backes then scored when he collected the rebound of Suter's point shot off the end boards, turned and fired a tough-angle shot past Pavelec.
Zach Parise's first goal of the tournament came on the power play 9:31 into the second period. It was the last shot Pavelec faced, as he gave up four goals on 12 shots, including two that went in off his pads.
With backup Alexander Salak in net, Phil Kessel scored his tournament-leading fifth goal early in the third before Hemsky cut the deficit to three with seven minutes to play.
"That goal was the biggest difference in the game," Czech forward Jakub Voracek said of Backes' goal that made it 3-1. "There's two seconds to go in the period, we have to make sure we lock it up."
Bylsma said one of the problems his team overcame in the preliminary round was it didn't play fast enough out of the defensive zone, through the neutral zone and into the attacking zone.
Speed was not a problem Wednesday night.
"Our transition game was a lot better," Parise said. "I think we weren't sucking the puck back, our D were getting it and finding that quick open guy. We kept going at them in waves. When you do that you have to play fast, and I think we did play with a lot of speed through the neutral zone."
They can't stop now, not with the Canadians up next and standing in their path to the United States' first gold medal in men's hockey since 1980 and just their third in the past 54 years.
Thirteen players on this year's U.S. Olympic team left Vancouver knowing they were one shot away from winning gold there. Now they have a second chance against Canada.
It's not for gold, but it's for a chance at gold, not to mention pride and redemption.
"It's going to be a repeat of the gold-medal game in Vancouver," Backes said. "There's not going to be any need for motivation."
CZE 1 0 1 - 2
USA 3 1 1 - 5
1. USA, van Riemsdyk (Kesler) 1:39
2. CZE, Hemsky (unassisted) 4:31
3. USA, Brown (Backes, Suter) 14:38
4. USA, Backes (Suter, McDonagh) 19:58
Penalties - none
5. USA, Parise - PPG (Pavelski, Suter) 9:31
Penalties - Michalek CZE (interference) 28:27, Voracek CZE (tripping) 16:01, Orpik USA (interference) 15:32
6. USA, Kessel (Kesler, Shattenkirk) 2:01
7. CZE, Hemsky (unassisted) 13:00
Penalties - Zidlicky CZE (slashing) 6:47
SHOTS ON GOAL
CZE 7 6 10 - 23
USA 9 9 7 - 25
Goaltenders (saves-shots against) - USA: Quick (W, 21-23); CZE: Pavelec (L, 8-12), Salak (12-13).
Power plays (goals-chances) - CZE: 0-1; USA: 1-3