The United States men's hockey team passed a quarterfinal test against the Czech Republic with flying colors on Wednesday by cruising to a 5-2 victory and earning a spot in the semifinals.
Team USA entered the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as a top contender for gold, and it continued to prove that it was deserving of the pre-tournament hype.
Wednesday's win ensured that the Americans will play for a medal, but its route to the gold-medal final will go through defending Olympic champion Canada, as Tom Gulitti of The Record noted:
The Canadians survived a tough test from Latvia in the quarters, while the outcome of the United States' win over the Czech Republic wasn't in doubt over the game's final two periods.
Team USA wasted very little time getting the jump on a Czech team that played one day earlier against rival Slovakia. Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk took a Ryan Kesler pass beside the Czech net and jammed the puck home just 1 minute, 39 seconds in.
More than anything, it was poorly played by Winnipeg Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who failed to hug the post sufficiently, according to Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:
It looked as though the rout might be on from the very beginning, but the Czech Republic quickly changed the flow of play. They answered less than three minutes later as Edmonton Oilers forward Ales Hemsky was credited with an extremely fluky goal.
If hockey awarded own goals like soccer, then this one would have been charged to New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who inadvertently put the puck in his own net while attempting a clearance.
That goal clearly energized the Czechs and led to a number of quality scoring chances in the following minute. The Czech Republic very nearly took the lead when a shot deflected off Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick and dribbled toward the goal line, but McDonagh redeemed himself by defusing the situation, per Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times:
After a few nervous moments, the United States got back on track thanks to a nifty passing display. David Backes of the St. Louis Blues found the Kings' Dustin Brown, who fired the puck into a wide-open net to put Team USA on top 2-1 in front of a partisan crowd, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:
That goal came with roughly five minutes left in the period, and it looked as though the Americans would be content to enter the locker room with a one-goal advantage. The United States would prove insatiable, however.
It can be said that Team USA is the most complete team in the Olympic tournament when taking all aspects into account, and the squad's hockey IQ became quite evident in the closing seconds of the opening stanza.
One of the biggest stories surrounding Olympic hockey in Sochi is the penchant for big bounces off the end boards, and that came into play for Team USA as a shot from defenseman Ryan Suter went wide of the Czech net and bounced right to Backes, who put the puck past a prone Pavelec, per Kenny Albert of Fox Sports:
There were just 1.8 seconds remaining in the period when the Americans netted that goal, and it created an entirely different dynamic heading into the first intermission with the Czechs trailing by two despite playing a solid period.
Status quo ruled the first half of the second period; however, a penalty to Czech defenseman Zbynek Michalek put the Czech Republic back on its heels. Pavelec allowed a juicy rebound off a shot from San Jose Sharks forward Joe Pavelski, and Team USA captain Zach Parise made no mistake by depositing the rebound in the back of the net.
On the play, Suter improved upon his fine performance by picking up his third helper of the contest, according to the Minnesota Wild's official Twitter account:
Parise's goal was the fourth allowed by Pavelec on 12 shots, which resulted in Czech head coach Alois Hadamczik pulling him in favor of backup Alexander Salak, per Dan Rosen of NHL.com:
The United States took a 4-1 lead into the second intermission, and it picked up right where it left off early in the third. Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel drove to the net, and deflected a pinpoint pass from Kesler past Salak to up the lead to four.
That goal essentially represented the final nail in the Czech Republic's coffin, but Passan quipped that it wasn't really possible for Team USA to take its foot off the gas pedal due to its depth:
The Czechs added a goal in the closing minutes. After scoring a fortunate goal in the first period, Hemsky tallied another with seven minutes remaining in the game by beating Quick with a laser of a wrist shot to make it 5-2.
Wednesday's quarterfinal win allowed Team USA to remain undefeated on the tournament, and it figures to provide plenty of momentum heading into the semis. The Americans seem to be getting progressively better with each passing game, which is something that head coach Dan Bylsma stressed ahead of the 2014 Winter Games, according to Scott Burnside of ESPN.com.
Obviously, winning your pool is a good thing, but there's also a very big portion outside of just winning the games. We have to build this team, and you've got to be able to keep working to get better, keep working to build, to get ready for your fourth game.
If Team USA's improvement continues, then it could be in line to score an impressive upset over Canada in the semifinals.
After Canada's overtime win against the United States in the 2010 gold-medal game, it is only fitting that they will meet in another huge contest four years later. This time around, however, the script is a little bit different.
Canada will be favored as it is in every game, but the Americans are no longer considered heavy underdogs. They are very close to being considered Canada's equal, and there is absolutely no doubt that they are in better form.
The United States owns an emotional win over Russia, and it took care of the Czechs with relative ease. Canada, on the other hand, scored just two goals in an overtime win over the Finns two contests ago, and once again scored only twice in its most recent game against Latvia.
Team USA has been a consistent offensive force in this tournament, while Canada has been disjointed in that regard despite its immense skill.
Perhaps the slate should be wiped clean when the United States and Canada meet on Friday, but it's tough to ignore what we have seen at the Olympics thus far. The Americans have been the better team, and the loss to Canada four years ago will be a motivating factor in the semis.
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