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U.S. bounces Czechs, faces Canada in semis

by Brian Fitzsimmons
For the first time, we saw what the U.S. National Under-18 Team is made of in the midst of adversity.

In its first do-or-die contest Thursday, the Americans executed their aggressive game with ease and came away with a 6-2 victory against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals of the 2009 IIHF World Under-18 Championships in Fargo, N.D.

Drew Shore scored a pair of first-period goals, and the U.S. team used an overwhelming blitzkrieg of shots to bounce back from a deflating 6-5 loss to Russia on Tuesday, setting the stage for Friday's showdown against Canada in the semifinals.

"It was nice," Shore said. "I wasn't getting a lot of luck with the puck earlier in the tournament, but I was glad to give us momentum to propel us. We had confidence we were going to bounce back. We never lost our confidence."

In other action, the Russians moved past Sweden, 4-1, and earned a trip to the other semifinal game against Finland. The gold-medal game is slated for Sunday evening.

The United States jumped out to an early 2-0 cushion thanks to Shore's sparkling performance. Antonin Honejsek netted a power-play goal with 5:12 remaining in the session to cut the deficit, but the Czechs did little else against goaltender Jack Campbell, whose .952 save percentage and 0.99 goals-against average lead the tournament.

"This definitely feels good," Shore said. "We've been working for two years for the gold medal. We took care of business, so it feels good."

Defenseman Philip Samuelsson delivered the game-winning goal just 55 seconds into the second. Kenny Ryan, Jerry D'Amigo and Jeremy Morin also scored in the period to give the Americans a commanding 6-1 advantage.

"We needed it, obviously, tonight," U.S. coach Ron Rolston said. "I think the guys did a good job throughout the game and played with good tempo. We played a solid game of hockey and Drew's goals gave us a little bit of breathing room."

Ondrej Palat solved Campbell with a power-play goal early in the third, but by then, the United States had already begun to think about the much-anticipated battle of North America.

"This team has been good that way in all of the international competition," Rolston said. "Whether it's tonight or (Friday), the margin of error is smaller and that's what makes these tournaments difficult."

That may be true, but the United States has the chance to capture its sixth straight medal because it is thriving on the offensive end, having outscored opponents 35-11 in five games.

Facing the Canadians, however, is a whole other dynamic.

"The four teams that are left are outstanding teams," Rolston said. "(Canada) has all the winning tradition and they are a hard-working team. We're going to have to be at our best if we want to be successful. Every shift is going to count for 60 minutes."

The U.S. team has posted 50-plus shots in three contests -- including Thursday's drubbing, when it held a 58-23 margin.

Riding a potent offense, the Americans face Canada in the semifinals for the first time since 2007, when they came away with a 4-3 shootout win to advance to the gold-medal game.

"It's definitely going to be fun," U.S. right wing Matt Nieto said. "For most of the guys, this is for two years of hard work. Tonight, we handled the task at hand and we did it. We definitely have to go in with the right attitude and we have to play from start to finish."

By doing just that for five games now, they are two steps away from winning the gold medal in the tournament, which is being held on U.S. soil for the first time in championship history.

"We're taking it one step at a time," Shore said. "Obviously, Canada is a great team and right now, that's all we're focused on. It's definitely a huge game; the rivalry is great. I'm sure it'll be one of the most fun games I'll ever play in."

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