Dustin Brown banged in a go-ahead goal late in the first period and the Americans went on to dominate the Czech Republic 5-2 on Wednesday to earn a spot in the semifinals for the third time in four Olympics.
The U.S. went on to play in the gold-medal game in 2010 and 2002 and lost each time to the Canadians.
When the Americans’ coach, Dan Bylsma, was asked to look ahead to the matchup, he took a deep breath and paused for several seconds to gather his thoughts.
“We knew we were going to have some big games prior to this point in time, but you were looking forward to the possibility of this rematch,” he said.
After a day off, the countries that share a long border in North America and generally friendly relations will meet Friday for the chance to become hockey champions of the Sochi Games.
“It’s a great opportunity,” American forward Max Pacioretty 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.”
While the Canadians had to hold off Latvia 2-1, the U.S. might be peaking at the right time to improve its chances to win Olympic hockey gold for the first time since the “Miracle on Ice,” in 1980.
If the U.S. wins two more games, anyone who has been watching them play won’t be surprised.
“This is a team that has put up a spectacular performance,” Czech Republic coach Alois Hadamczik said.
And it wasn’t the first time in Sochi.
The U.S. has been tested only once, in a 3-2, eight-round shootout against the host Russians in the preliminary round. The Americans crushed the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia by a combined score of 17-4.
The Americans shaped their roster with players who skate fast, hit hard, share the puck and score.
“It starts off the ice,” Pacioretty said. “Everyone on this team realizes you have to play for the team and check your ego at the door. All of us are the top players on our team back home and you come here and you’re asked to play different roles.
“You see everyone in the room, willing to go to the dirty areas, block shots, make hits. It’s nice to see when you see a guy like Patty Kane backchecking as hard as he can across the ice. It kind of puts things in perspective.”
While the Czechs had to play for a second straight day because they needed to beat Slovakia in the qualification round just to reach the quarterfinals, the rested Americans were ready to roll after two days off.
The U.S. seemed to take advantage of having fresh legs, beating the Czech Republic to loose pucks all night long.
“They had more energy,” Czech goalie Ondrej Pavelec said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s just the way it is.”
James van Riemsdyk gave the Americans a lead 1:39 into the game.
They lost it a few minutes later when one of their defenseman, Ryan McDonagh, tried to clear the puck away from the front of the crease and it went off the left skate of Ryan Suter and got past Jonathan Quick.
The Czechs were not as successful scoring on their own against Quick, who started ahead of 2010 silver-medal winning goaltender Ryan Miller and had 21 saves.
Ales Hemsky was credited with a goal that two Americans touched after he did. Hemsky legitimately scored his second one, skating to the slot and snapping off a wrist shot that got past Quick’s blocker with 7 minutes left in the game.
Brown put the U.S. up 2-1 at the 14:38 mark of the first, and David Backes made it 3-1 with 1.8 seconds in the period.
Zach Parise piled on, pushing the Americans’ lead to 4-1 midway through the second period to chase Pavelec after he made just eight saves. He was replaced by Alexander Salak, who stopped 12 shots.
Since the Czechs won 1998 Olympics, the first with NHL players, they have won only one a bronze medal in 2006.