The U.S. Olympic Men's Hockey Team has guaranteed it will play for a medal. On Friday, the Americans will determine which color they'll play for when Team USA meets Canada in the semifinal. It was a rousing 5-2 win over the Czech Republic that got the U.S. into this situation and early in the quarterfinal game, it was the work of its checking line that made all the difference.
Some line juggling from Dan Bylsma since the preliminary round put together a trio of snarly forwards, all of which are captains of their respective NHL teams, and matched them up with the Czech Republic's top line. Center David Backes and wings Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan were unrelenting in their pressure on the Czech trio that was led by Jaromir Jagr and never passed up an opportunity to throw a body check.
They also didn't pass up the opportunity to create offense. In the first period, there wasn't a better line for Team USA. After the Czechs tied the game on an unfortunate bounce off Ryan Suter's skate, the play between the two teams was even. That was until Backes showed there's more touch to his grit when he sent a pass through a forest of legs and sticks that ended up right on the tape of Brown, who had the whole net at his discretion and gave the U.S. a 2-1 lead.
Then it was Backes camped out in front of the Czech net who collected Ryan Suter's last-ditch attempt on net off the back boards and fired a bad angle shot up and over Ondrej Pavelec with 1.8 seconds to go to make it 3-1.
From then on, the U.S. was in control of the game.
The U.S. also got goals from James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel, both of which have been outstanding in the tournament and Zach Parise scored on the power play to end his pointless drought at the Olympics so far.
The scoring depth was great, but those two goals from the line that has become the Olympic version of a “grind line” and their physical play in all zones proved to be a real difference in the game. The physical game wore on the Czech forwards that didn't do well when they were not given time and space.
When a team can be successful physically on the big ice, it makes the width start to disappear. Callahan, Backes and Brown all have enough speed to make the physical play and recover quickly if they get caught out of position. It also comes in handy in board battles as Backes showed when he forced a turnover that eventually led to Brown's goal.
All three players on the captain line have reputations for their hard-nosed and sometimes over-the-line play in the NHL, but not one of them took a penalty while playing this overly-aggressive brand of hockey.
Those reputations also often underscore how good these three can be.
Backes has 42 points in 52 games for the St. Louis Blues this year and is available to head coach Ken Hitchcock in every situation. Callahan is considered the heart and soul of the New York Rangers, he plays a role very similar to the one he's been asked to play for Team USA. Meanwhile, Brown's offense may have fallen on hard times this season, but he tied for the Kings' postseason scoring lead during their Stanley Cup run in 2012.
The funny thing is that this trio, seemingly made for each other, weren't put together until the late goings of the last preliminary-round game by Bylsma.
Backes and Callahan started the tournament with Team USA's captain in Zach Parise, likely in an effort for Bylsma to balance the offense. However, it wasn't until Brown, who had been skating with Patrick Kane and Ryan Kesler, arrived about midway through the Slovenia game that this line had a more defined identity.
That identity is found in playing an Olympic-ice version of the NHL game.
The big ice doesn't mean the physical game goes away. If nothing else, players that are willing to go to the hard areas of the ice are rewarded more often because even on an international surface the game is won between the faceoff dots.
That puts an emphasis on driving hard to the net and establishing a strong presence at the net-front and below the faceoff dots in the offensive zone.
Team USA's net-front play was second to none in the win over the Czechs and it was Backes, Brown and Callahan setting the tone in that department. All five of Team USA's goals came from within a few feet of the net. They'll have to do the same the rest of the tournament as it's hard to see this group getting broken up right after they found their game.
Now the U.S. will have to turn its focus to Canada, a team that has had to scratch and claw its ways to its last two victories against teams that were far less talented, but successful in bogging down Canada's elite forwards.
The U.S. is not going to trap like Finland and Latvia did against the Canadians, but the style they employed against the Czech Republic is going to be key. Team USA has the last change and will be able to get the Backes line out to be physical against Canada's top skill players.
The U.S. would probably like to see the Captain Line out against Sidney Crosby and that's probably the match-up the trio of Backes, Callahan and Brown will draw.
The USA-Canada game should resemble more what we're used to seeing in the NHL, only with a lot more ice and even more speed. Scoring goals could end up being very difficult with two strong defensive groups and solid goaltending, so it could come down to those hard battles and tough match-ups.
That may be the kind of game Canada would feel more comfortable playing, but if the U.S. is as successful in the way they made the big ice seem smaller today, it's going to make for an interesting semifinal.
As Finland showed against Russia, it's going to take a team game to be successful in this tournament. The U.S. may have found more of an identity than Canada has at this point, but it will hardly matter when the two meet with a trip to the gold-medal game on the line. We knew this game would come sooner or later and now we get to enjoy it on Friday.
Other notes from Team USA's 5-2 win over the Czech Republic.
- Defenseman Ryan Suter finished the game with three assists and played 22:10 to lead all skaters.
- Phil Kessel scored his fifth goal of the Olympics, which ties him for the tournament lead. He now has eight points in four games, which is best among all players in Sochi.
- Team USA's 20 total goals through four games is tops at the Olympics and they have been scoring at a 16.6 percent clip as a team.