Confident U.S. ready for another crack at Canadaby Shawn P. Roarke
SOCHI -- The United States men's hockey team has waited for this for four long years, ever since Sidney Crosby's golden goal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics ended the dream of the upstart Americans in 2010.
Now, thanks to a convincing 5-2 victory against the Czech Republic on Wednesday night at Shayba Arena in the quarterfinals of the 2014 Sochi Olympics men's hockey tournament, the Americans get the opponent they want, Canada, even if it is a round early.
"We were destined and on a crash course to face each other," said American goalie Jonathan Quick, who made 21 saves to tame the Czechs. "It happens to be in the semifinals, not the finals like Vancouver."
In Vancouver, the teams met twice. In the preliminary round, the Americans scored an upset. In the rematch, the gold-medal game, Canada earned its revenge by the slimmest of margins, an overtime goal by arguably the best player in the world.
Now they meet again, this time with a berth in the gold-medal game on the line. There, the winner of the semifinal Friday (noon ET, NBCSN, CBC) will play the winner of the game between Sweden and Finland (7 a.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN).
But nobody is willing to think past the North American grudge match that awaits in less than 48 hours.
"We did have a tall task [against the Czechs] and we couldn't look past them to another opponent or we might be shipping out," said David Backes, who had a goal and an assist in the victory. "[The semifinal] is going to be a repeat of the gold-medal game in Vancouver. There's not going to be any need for motivation. It's going to be a great battle and we'll see what happens."
The Americans believe they are ready to meet whatever challenge the Canadians can throw at them. The tournament to date has imbued them with a sense of confidence, a belief they are built perfectly for this tournament, aligned properly to conquer the challenges presented by playing on the wider European ice surface.
While Canada has struggled a bit, defeating Finland in a shootout and struggling against supposedly weaker teams like Norway, Austria and Latvia, which they narrowly defeated 2-1 on Wednesday in the quarterfinals, the USA has prospered.
The Americans began the downward spiral of the host, Russia, with a shootout victory to give them an upper hand in Group A. They drilled Slovakia and easily handled Slovenia in the other group-stage games. Wednesday, they jumped out to a 4-1 lead on the Czechs before cruising to the finish line.
The team has seemed to get stronger each game.
"This tournament is about confidence and getting better every game," said American forward Dustin Brown, who had a goal Wednesday. "I think it goes a long way in the way we play. You can kind of snowball it into win after win and get that confidence. That's important going into a game like the semifinals when you want to keep momentum going, especially early."
The Americans have also had no issue scoring. They have 20 goals after four games and Phil Kessel is the tournament's leading scorer. Canada, meanwhile, could manage just two goals against Latvia and has 13 for the tournament. Only six of the 13 goals have been scored by Canada's forwards, who were supposed to be the strength of this team.
The United States, for comparison purposes, has goals from nine different forwards.
It has also received good goaltending from Quick, who was spectacular in the toughest game of the first four, the preliminary-round game against Russia.
Special-teams play has also been a strength for the Americans. They have three power-play goals in 11 opportunities and have only conceded one goal while shorthanded.
"There's not going to be any need for motivation."
-- U.S. forward David Backes
Finally, the Americans believe they have improved their forecheck throughout the tournament, learning the angles needed to pressure the puck in the attacking zone and, in general, playing at a faster pace than they did when the tournament started eight days ago.
"Through the preliminary round, the first three games, I thought we did a number of things well, but we really hadn't played with pace and hadn't played with a forecheck that I thought we could play with," U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said. "That was really something we focused on and tonight I thought we had that. I thought our forecheck was aggressive. I thought we played fast. Our D did a good job of delivering the puck and getting into the offensive zone. We were much better than that in this game. It's something we're going to have to keep at as we go forward."
Will any of that matter when the Americans and the Canadians line up against each other Friday night at Bolshoy Arena to continue a border grudge match that took full flower 18 years ago with the Americans' shocking win at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and has continued with two gold-medal games in the Olympics, each won by Canada?
Nobody knows that answer.
But the Americans insist they will be ready for a chance to reverse recent history.
"I mean it's a nice chance for some redemption," said Zach Parise, who scored the last-minute goal to force overtime in 2010. "It's not going to be an easy game, we know how good they are. The game when these two teams meet, it brings out the best in everyone and it always makes for a good game. We know how hard it's going to be. We have to make sure we're ready to play."