By Gary DAmato Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
SOCHI, Russia — They came halfway around the world to renew a border rivalry.
This time, they’ll meet in the semifinals of the men’s Olympic hockey tournament instead of the gold-medal game. It doesn’t matter. These two teams could face off on a frozen pond in Saskatchewan and they’d go at each other’s throats.
Team USA vs. Team Canada.
Hockey fans worldwide are in for a treat Friday.
One day after their nations’ respective women’s teams play for gold in Sochi, the men will face off for a spot in the Olympic finale opposite the Finland-Sweden semifinal winner.
On Wednesday, the U.S. dominated the Czech Republic, 5-2, in its quarterfinal at Shayba Arena while next door, at Bolshoy Ice Dome, Canada beat Latvia, 2-1.
Four years ago, Canada edged the U.S., 3-2, in the Olympic finale in Vancouver, with Sidney Crosby scoring the golden goal in overtime.
“I think we were destined to be on a crash course for each other,” U.S. forward David Backes said. “It happens to be in the semifinals instead of the final like Vancouver. We’ve traveled 5,000 miles for this. I think both teams will be very excited to play each other.
“It’s going to be some great hockey played Friday.”
USA Hockey put together a fast team to take advantage of the bigger ice, and the Americans have seemingly gotten better every game. They’ve gotten good goaltending from Jonathan Quick, a stone-wall defense led by Madison native Ryan Suter and perhaps a surprising amount of offense.
“We’re playing fast, scoring off the rush, scoring on the power play,” forward Zach Parise said. “Just the way we tried to design this team with a lot of speed, I think that’s really played to our advantage on the bigger surface.
“Our transition has been really good, our ‘D’ has been good, we’re moving the puck really well, we’re getting good chances off the rush.”
It helps that Phil Kessel, another Madison native and a star for the Toronto Maple Leafs, has been a scoring machine. Kessel scored his fourth Olympic goal in the third period, which gave the U.S. a 5-1 lead.
“(Kessel) was on fire in the NHL before we got here, and he’s brought that form with him,” Parise said. “He plays well on the big ice. He’s tough to contain out there. He’s a big weapon for us.”
Kessel, who has eight points in the tournament, was dismissive when asked about being the leading scorer in the Olympics.
“That doesn’t matter a thing to me,” he said. “I’m here to win medals, not to gain personal tributes.”
Backes, Parise, Dustin Brown and James van Riemsdyk also scored for Team USA and Suter had three assists.
“With Ryan, it seems so effortless, the way he skates and the plays that he makes,” Parise said. “He simplifies the game pretty well and makes it so much easier for the forwards.
“There’s a lot of talented guys on this team. And I’m on it, too.”
Because the Canada-Latvia game was played at the same time, some of the players didn’t know they’d be playing the Canadians in the semifinals until they walked through the media mixed zone.
“Did they win?” van Riemsdyk said. “Well, that’s why we play hockey. It’s going to be a fun game. Obviously, it’s a pretty big rivalry.”
“I mean, you kind of expected them,” said Quick. “They’ve got a good team. They’ve got a lot of skill, they’ve got speed, they’ve got a good goaltender, they’ve got a great defensive end. I guess you make it to the semifinals, you expect to play these kind of teams. It’s nothing we weren’t expecting.”
If Team USA gets past Canada, it will play either Finland or Sweden for the gold medal.
Finland reached the semifinals by upsetting Russia, 3-1, in the quarterfinals earlier Wednesday. That means there will be no reprise of the Americans’ thrilling 3-2 victory over the Russians in a shootout in the preliminary round.
“We’re not upset that they’re out with how good they are,” Parise said. “Finland is a great team, too. From what I heard they really took it to them today. But when guys like (Alex) Ovechkin and (Evgeni) Malkin and (Ilya) Kovalchuk aren’t in the tournament anymore, it’s pretty nice.”
The tradeoff is guys like Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Shea Weber.
“I haven’t seen them play but just looking at their roster, they’ve got some of the most talented and best players in the world,” Parise said. “It’s two teams that bring out the best in each other. We’re going to have our hands full and it’s going to be a great game.”