The obstacle between the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team and the gold-medal game is an impressive one. But as menacing as the roster of the Canadian team the Americans will meet in the semifinal is, this version of Team USA has done an awfully good job of powering right through seemingly difficult roadblocks without so much as slowing down.
The United States’ win over the Czech Republic owed something to a Czech coach clearly in over his head and grossly incompetent work in the Czech net, but even so, it was a convincing victory on what was otherwise an unconvincing day for hockey's traditional powers.
Unlike half of the lower-seeded teams in the quarterfinals, the Czechs were a legitimate threat to medal, but Team USA beat them by almost the same score that Sweden defeated tiny Slovenia. Meanwhile, the Russians were beaten by fourth-seeded Finland, and Canada just barely squeaked out a victory over Latvia.
Convincing performances are becoming a U.S. specialty.
Slovakia, a team boasting NHL stars like Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara, should have been a challenge. When all was said and done, the United States had defeated Slovakia 7-1, a blow the Slovaks never quite recovered from in their subsequent games. Russia most certainly was a challenge, but Team USA proved equal to the test, gritting out a 3-2 shootout victory. That was followed by an obligatory victory over Slovenia (5-1) and then the win over the Czechs by almost an identical margin (5-2). If not for the strong work of Ales Hemsky, it would have been a shutout victory for the United States.
It is a truism that for a team to win games its best players need to be its best players, and perhaps that explains how the Americans have been so successful. Phil Kessel has been the most impressive forward in the Olympics to date, scoring five times and adding three assists in four games. Regular linemates Joe Pavelski and James van Riemsdyk are both also scoring at over a point-per-game pace.
Nor has the back end been negligent. Ryan Suter contributed three assists and played 22:10 in the United States’ first elimination contest. In net, the difference between Jonathan Quick and Ondrej Pavelec could not have been clearer. Quick was tested often and stood up to the challenge. He now has a 0.935 save percentage in three games, all of them against teams with high-end offensive talent.
There is however, something still more impressive about how the U.S. team has played in Sochi. These games mark the first time since NHL players started participating in Olympic hockey that the American entry has been able to put on a clinic outside of North America.
In 1998, the United States lost twice in the group round, stumbling its way to a quarterfinals loss at the hands of the Czech team it crushed so convincingly on Wednesday. In 2006, the only American victory of the tournament came over Kazakhstan; they lost three times and were merely able to tie Latvia in the group round before falling to Finland, again in the quarterfinals.
The failures overseas contrast sharply with American dominance on their own side of the Atlantic. In both 2002 and 2010, Team USA was undefeated until the final game of each tournament.
Never before, in other words, has the U.S. been able to field a team that showed itself a real gold-medal threat overseas. What changed?
While it is tempting to ascribe that success to some big shift, the more likely answer is more plausible: USA Hockey has made a host of incremental improvements and has been rewarded for its choice of coaching staff.
"The U.S. have really good skills and speed," Czech goalie Ondrej Pavelec said (via the IIHF). "Their goaltending is very good. Before the tournament, everyone was saying that Russia and Canada were supposed to win, but the U.S. are a young team with a lot of skill and if you are not ready for them, they can hurt you."
It is tempting to dismiss the accomplishment, to point out that Slovakia was beset by injury, the Czech Republic was guilty of many self-inflicted wounds and that Russia fell in the quarterfinals. Those comments are all true, but to focus on them unfairly diminishes the greatness of what Team USA has already accomplished.
To demonstrate how impressive the United States’ accomplishments have been, one needs to look no further than Friday’s opponent. Canada’s route to the semifinals has seen them face Norway, Austria, an undermanned Finnish team and Latvia. Only once in those four games was the Canadian team able to provide a convincing win.
Whatever happens the rest of the way, Team USA’s managers, coaches and players deserve much credit for what they have already accomplished. And given those accomplishments, it should surprise nobody if the United States has all the answers for the daunting Canadian team it now faces.