February 19, 2014

USA, Canada set for semifinal showdown in Sochi

By Jesse Connolly

U.S. forward Phil Kessel, captain Zach Parise and alternate captain Ryan Suter celebrate a goal in the Americans' 5-2 victory over the Czech Republic. (Getty Images)

For the third time in the last four Olympics, Canada will have an opportunity to prevent the United States from winning their first gold medal since 1980.

On Wednesday, The Czechs gave the United States a scare that was all but silenced by the conclusion of the first period in their quarterfinal matchup. The Americans jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a goal by UNH product James van Riemsdyk, but the Czech Republic knotted things up on a tally credited to Ales Hemsky, which found its way past Jonathan Quick (Hamden, Conn.) after an errant clear by Ryan McDonagh ricocheted off U.S. defenseman Ryan Suter and into the back of the net.

From there, a sluggish U.S. team relied heavily on Quick, as the Czechs -- who’d played the day prior against Slovakia -- appeared to have much more energy than many anticipated.

But with 5:22 to go in the opening frame, Blues center David Backes found Dustin Brown wide open at the left post. He beat Ondrej Pavelec, staking the Americans to a 2-1 lead. Backes doubled Team USA’s edge in the final two seconds of the period, as his shot from along the goal line eluded Pavelec’s glove just before the buzzer sounded.

"They had more energy," said Pavelec, who was pulled in the second period. "It's not an excuse. It's just the way it is."

While the U.S. was well on its way to a 5-2 victory, Canada found itself in a dogfight with Latvia. The Cinderella team of the tournament got a goal from Lauris Darzins late in the first, just minutes after Patrick Sharp staked the heavy favorites to a 1-0 lead. The game remained deadlocked until the 13:06 mark of the third, when a Shea Weber blast bailed out the Canadians.

"I thought our guys did a great job of keeping their composure and staying with it,” center Ryan Getzlaf said after Canada’s 2-1 win, during which they outshot Latvia 57-16. “I thought we did a lot of great things. We just didn’t put the puck in the net. I mean, they’re there for a reason. They don’t just roll over and die. They were playing hard, too. They played hard around their net, and I think that’s the biggest thing: those second and third opportunities weren’t there as much."

The two North American squads are on the same side of the Olympic bracket, setting up their semifinal showdown. The winner will play whoever prevails between Sweden and Finland for gold.

"It's a great opportunity," winger Max Pacioretty (New Canaan, Conn.) said. "They're obviously the favorite coming into the tournament, and we've opened up a lot of eyes with our play, but we have more in the tank to give and to show. We keep getting better every game, and hopefully we'll keep getting better after this one."

Weber, who was a member of the host Canadian squad that beat the U.S. in the gold medal game in Vancouver in 2010, is looking forward to the latest battle between the two rivals.

"Obviously, we play against them in North America, so we’re familiar with those guys," said Weber. "It’s going to be a great game. They’ve played a great Olympic tournament so far, and it’s going to be exciting."

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com