International Ice Hockey Federation

It's all about U.S.

Americans cruise past Czechs into SF

Published 20.02.2014 00:08 GMT+4 | Author Andy Potts
It's all about U.S.
SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 19: USA's David Backes #42 and Ryan Callahan #24 celebrate after a first period goal agains the Czech Republic during men's quarterfinal action at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Calm, controlled and business-like, Team USA sweeps aside the Czech Republic by a 5-2 margin to close on back-to-back Olympic medals.

Of all the major contenders in Sochi, Team USA has managed to keep beneath the radar best of all. While Canada frets over Sid Crosby's form, Sweden contends with injuries to star players and Russia leaves its own party early, the Americans have quietly but impressively won their games.

Wednesday's stroll past the Czech Republic was the USA's fourth win of the competition. And, like two of its three predecessors, it was clinically delivered with a minimum of fuss. Only the inevitable fandango around the epic clash with Russia has propelled the Americans anywhere near a headline as the team calmly gets on with business out of the spotlight that follows its rivals.

Even as the USA was easing into the last four, opponent Canada was grabbing more attention as it struggled to a narrow 2-1 win over unheralded Latvia to set up a reprise of the final from four years ago.

But now the States stand one win shy of a first gold outside of North America since 1972's Sapporo silver, and with a tournament goal difference of 19-6 there are reasons to believe that the team could go one better than its silver medal in Vancouver four years earlier.

"I want to win a gold medal and we have to beat the best teams to do that," said goalscorer David Backes of the up-coming clash with Canada. "If it's Canada next we have to meet that head on.

"It seems like we were on a crash course to meet and now it's going to be in the semi-final."

For the Czechs, meanwhile, defeat here represents not just the end of the Olympics but the end of an era. Forty-somethings Jaromir Jagr and Petr Nedved will likely not remain with the national team and there's plenty to suggest that a major reshuffle is due to start in the heart of Europe.

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Any team facing the USA in this tournament has been handed one simple task: stop Kessel. The Toronto Maple Leafs forward has been in blistering form, with 4+3=7 points taking him to the top of the scoring charts ahead of the quarter finals.

In the first period against the Czechs, though, Team USA proved it wasn't just a one-man band, opening up a 3-1 lead without Kessel troubling the statisticians at all.

James van Riemsdyk gave the Americans a perfect start with his first goal of the tournament, forcing the puck in off Ondrej Pavelec's skate on the wraparound after just 99 seconds.

If that goal had an element of fortune about it, the Czechs soon struck back with a big slice of their own luck: Ales Hemsky was credited with the goal, but in truth he could know little about how his shot rattled around the slot, deflecting off two defencemen and bobbling beyond Jonathan Quick to tie it up in the fifth minute.

That lifted the neutrals in the crowd, many of them Russians deflated by their team's unexpected early exit from the competition. Fleeting chants of 'USA! USA!' were quickly stifled by a returning roar of 'Chekhiy!'. In Russia's absence, any Slavic team is preferable to seeing the big prizes head back across the Atlantic for the local fans.

However, even if history was on the Czechs' side after wins in its only two Olympic meetings with the USA since separating from Czechoslovakia, the present-day set-up tells a different story. An aging Czech roster was always struggling to handle a lively, free-scoring U.S. line-up, and two goals late in the first tipped the game decisively towards the west.

Backes was instrumental: first his perceptive pass across the face of the net picked out Dustin Brown who made no mistake with almost the whole net open for him. Then, with less than two seconds until the hooter Backes found the target himself, pouncing to sweep the puck home from a tight angle after Ryan Suter dumped it off the boards.

It was up to Pavelec, the Czech goalie, to sing the praises of the USA. "The U.S. have really good skills and speed," he said. "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."

The second frame saw the U.S. extend its advantage to the point where it could ease up and conserve some strength for the up-coming semi. Midway through Zach Parise made it 4-1, getting his first of the Games when he picked up the rebound from Joe Pavelski's shot and squeezed it off a Pavelec skate and into the net from a tight angle. That was the last we saw of Pavelec, who was promptly replaced by Alexander Salak for the last 30 minutes of the Czechs' Olympic campaign.

That was a sad end for the Czech goalie, who admitted that the quarter-final may have been a game too far.

"It's hard to say what went wrong," he added. "We were a little bit slower today, made some mistakes that can't happen in a game like that. It's all about one game. And we played last night in a really hard game. Maybe they had a little more energy."

The second half of the game was an exercise in gentle sparring. The USA, confident it had a points victory in the bag, saw no good reason to squander effort on a knock-out blow. The Czechs, tired and winded like an exhausted heavyweight, tried to keep offering battle but found its arsenal sadly depleted by the strain of two big games in successive nights. A Jakub Voracek foray, which saw the puck fired dangerously across the slot only to evade any marauding forward, typified the team's luck.

The inevitable Kessel goal arrived early in the third, with the competition's hottest shot turning up unattended on the post to turn in a diagonal from Ryan Kesler and take his tally to five markers in the competition. And although Hemsky got a second unassisted goal late in the game there was no way back for the Czechs.

Team USA captain Parise acknowledged that playing with a big lead made things easier, and paid tribute to the predatory skills of Kessel.

"It's always nice when you're 5-1 up," he said. "You have to make sure you don't cheat, you continue to play the right way, but you've got a good feeling that you're going to come out on top.

"Phil's playing great. He was on fire in the NHL before he came here and he's continued that in this tournament. He's pushing their 'D' out on this big ice and it's tough to deal with him."

Canada will be the next to discover just how difficult Kessel and his colleagues can be in Friday's semi-final.