Feb 19 2014, 4:43 PM EST -
By KEN BELSON
SOCHI, Russia - The bounces seemed to go the Americans’ way Wednesday.
First, Finland upset Russia in the quarterfinal round, eliminating any chance that the host nation would face their arch rivals, the United States, in a rematch. In the evening, Canada struggled to vanquish Latvia, 2-1. And with time winding down in a tightly contested first period against the Czech Republic, the U.S. defenseman Ryan Suter threw the puck to the right of the net. It hit the boards and bounced straight to forward David Backes, who fired it past the helpless Czech goaltender, Ondrej Pavelec.
The goal, with 1.8 seconds left in the period, put the U.S. team up by 3-1, and the two-goal cushion seemed to deflate the Czechs, who were never a serious threat again. By eliminating the Czechs, 5-2, the Americans vaulted into the semifinals, where they will face Canada on Friday.
“That Russia game was an emotional game for us,” forward Ryan Callahan said, referring to the first-round shootout win over the Russians. “It gave us a lift and confidence and we’ve been rolling ever since, but we’re going to have a tough one the next one.”
The convincing win over the Czechs included a stifling defense, a balanced attack - nine players had points - and a physical style more reminiscent of an NHL game than an Olympic contest. Goaltender Jonathan Quick was solid, stopping 21 shots.
The Americans played their brand of hockey from the start. They bottled up Jaromir Jagr from the opening faceoff. He was shadowed by Backes for most of the game and ended up with only one shot on goal.
The Americans threw their weight around to try to slow the Czechs. Callahan played the instigator, getting into shoving matches with several players.
“No matter who you’re playing, you want to kind of win that physical matchup, especially knowing that they played last night, if we came out hard and physical on them,” he said.
James van Riemsdyk opened the scoring with an odd-angle goal that got past Pavelec less than two minutes into the game. About three minutes later, with the Czechs swirling around the U.S. net, defenseman Ryan McDonagh hit the puck off Suter’s skate and it skidded past Quick.
Ales Hemsky was credited with the goal, which brought cheers from crowd, the majority of which seemed to be rooting for the Czechs. It seemed the chippy contest would remain close.
But Dustin Brown scored with about five minutes left in the first period and then Backes’ quick strike as time ran down turned the tide for good.
“At the end of the day, we can’t be too much fun right now to play against,” Brown said. “We have a lot of guys who are hard on the puck.”
The U.S. started the second period with confidence. The Czechs were unable to create any of the odd-man rushes that made them dangerous early in the game, and the Americans controlled the puck for long stretches. After Zach Parise scored a power play goal midway through the second period to put the U.S. up, 4-1, the Czechs changed goaltenders, putting in Alexander Salak.
The Americans can spend Thursday knowing they won’t have to worry about facing Russia’s star-studded team.
“We’re not upset that they’re out, I guess, with how good they are,” said Parise. “When you have that home crowd, that home atmosphere, it always makes for an exciting game. But when guys like Kovlachuk and Ovechkin and Malkin are not in the tournament anymore, it’s pretty nice.”
Instead, they will have to prepare for Canada, which took 57 shots on goal yet managed only two goals against an outmanned Latvia team. Even though the Americans have put together a string of solid wins, they are taking nothing for granted. “You don’t come to the Olympics and not expect to go through a team like Canada,” said Brown. “As a player you want to play in those games.”