By Frank Pingue
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The United States rolled into the semi-finals of the men's Olympic ice hockey tournament with a 5-2 victory over the Czech Republic on Wednesday.
The 2010 silver medallists scored 99 seconds into the game and, despite a solid effort from the Czechs during a fast-paced opening period, were never really tested the rest of the way.
"I thought we played really well tonight but obviously you got to improve each game in this tournament and we got to keep going," American forward Phil Kessel told reporters.
The United States will now play Canada in one of Friday's two semi-finals. The game will be a rematch of the 2010 gold medal clash, which Canada won 3-2 in overtime.
James van Riemsdyk opened the scoring when his shot from the side of the net bounced off Czech goalie Ondrej Pavelec and into the goal moments after the opening faceoff.
The Czechs tied it up three minutes later when U.S. defenseman Ryan McDonagh tried to clear a loose puck near the crease but it bounced off team mate Ryan Suter's skate and into the net. Czech forward Ales Hemsky was credited with the goal.
The United States went back in front when Dustin Brown, parked alone beside the Czech net, fired a cross-ice pass from David Backes into the goal with Pavelec out of position.
Backes's goal with two seconds left in the first period, when he took advantage of a big bounce off the end board and scored from along the goal line, held up as the game winner.
"It's going really well for us," said Brown. "Part of it is the mix of guys we have and guys just kind of doing it together and not caring who gets all the recognition and that's the key for these types of tournaments."
The Americans added another goal at the game's midway mark when Zach Parise outhustled a Czech defenseman before chopping at a loose puck near the side of the net which somehow found its way through Pavelec's legs.
Pavelec, who allowed four goals on 12 shots, was replaced by Alexander Salak following Parise's goal.
Kessel redirected a Ryan Kesler pass into the Czech net two minutes into the third period for his fourth goal in two games. Ales Hemsky found the net for the Czechs late in the third but by then the result was a mere formality.
The Americans arrived in Sochi as one of the favourites to battle for the gold medal they barely missed out on in 2010 and they are living up to expectations.
Success in the tournament, which is played over 12 days, often goes to the team that can come together quickest and the U.S. squad have done that.
"Everyone on this team realised that we have to play for the team and check your egos at the door," said American forward Max Pacioretty.
"All of us are the top players on our team back home and we come here and we're asked to play different roles and you see everyone in the room willing to go to the dirty areas, block shots and makes hits."
The Americans will try to avenge their 2010 loss to a Canadian team who narrowly avoided an upset to Latvia in the other quarter-final.
Canada's offense has failed deliver the fireworks many had expected of a team with so much talent but the United states are not taking their rivals lightly.
"We know how good they are, they have some of the best players in the world," said Parise.
"We knew we would probably have to face them at some stage. We know a lot about each other and it's going to be a tough game for both teams.
"These guys are tough but when we play we bring the best out in each other."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)