The U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team continued looking like the class of the 2014 Sochi Games, steamrolling the Czech Republic 5-2 to set the stage for a semifinal showdown with Canada Friday.
The Americans got out to a quick lead Wednesday on a James van Riemsdyk goal just 99 seconds into the first period; the Czechs answered back some three minutes later, but Dustin Brown and David Backes – the game’s best player – scored before the first intermission to give the U.S. all the breathing room they’d need. Zach Parise and Phil Kessel added to the offense with goals in the second and third periods and the U.S. cruised to victory.
To be clear, they weren’t playing the toughest team in the tournament. Czech goalie Ondrej Pavelec was nowhere close to the form he needed to be in to give his team a chance to win before he got the hook; and his teammates showed none of the requisite desire necessary to win puck battles. The shot totals were close (the Czechs had 23 shots, the Americans 25), but the result was clear from the beginning.
The U.S.’s toughest test has come during their 3-2 shootout win over the host Russians, but no opponent has outplayed them for any significant amount of time. In Team Canada, they may meet their match. However, the Canadians barely beat the Latvians Wednesday and the U.S. will have every motivation to avenge their gold medal game defeat to Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The Americans are healthy, fast, confident, edgy and rock-solid in net.
Until further notice, the U.S. is still the hunter and the defending-champ Canadians are the hunted. And that’s another of their advantages: where Canada’s sticks were squeezed to the breaking point against Latvia, America’s players just looked looser out there against the Czechs and were far more patient in allowing chances to come to them.
This is why some of us liked America’s chances from the beginning. Do they have flaws? We haven’t seen any yet, but every team does. Do they also have the ability to send Canada packing in short order if they come out as flat as they did against the Latvians? You’d better believe it.
With due respect to the Swedes and Finns who will square off in the other semifinal game, the team that wins Canada’s showdown with Team U.S.A. will be the clear favorite to win gold. If you’re an optimistic Canadian fan, the best you can say at this stage is it’s a toss-up as to who could win on Friday. But the way the Americans have played so far in Sochi, they have every reason to expect to win.
That’s a big difference between 2014 and 2010 – and just might be why the U.S. claims its first hockey men’s gold medal since 1980.