SOCHI, Russia -- In each game, when the United States men's hockey team has taken the ice, it's as though the players have said, "OK, this is the element of the game that will be the difference-maker, the building block that propels us forward."
In the U.S. opener against Slovakia, the fourth line led the way in a six-goal second period.
Against Russia, the power play and T.J. Oshie's shootout heroics guided the Americans to victory.
Against Slovenia, it was Phil Kessel's deft scoring touch.
On Wednesday, facing a rejuvenated Czech Republic team in a win-or-go-home quarterfinal match, St. Louis Blues captain David Backes and his Meat Line bulled their way to a 5-2 victory and a berth in Friday's semifinal against -- wait for it -- Canada, in a repeat of the 2010 gold-medal game.
After the U.S. and Czechs traded early goals, Backes and Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown and New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan took over the game, punishing the Czechs physically (no news there) but also delivering clutch offensive moments.
First, there was Brown scoring his second goal of the tournament off a terrific cross-ice feed from Backes to restore the one-goal lead. Then, with time winding down in the first period, a great play by Brown maintained possession in the offensive zone and led to Backes' beating Czech netminder Ondrej Pavelec from a sharp angle with 1.8 seconds left to open up a two-goal lead.
"I think the physical play comes first," said Backes, whose three tournament goals is second only to Kessel's five among U.S. players. "Establishing ourselves on the ice, to own a little bit more space and time, and then from that there's a little bit of skill mixed in there, too, that we can make some better plays and create some offense. The second and third goals were timely and very necessary at the time.
"The result is a 3-1 lead going into the second period, and I think that gave us a lot of confidence that we can start to make more plays, start to play more on our toes a little more."
Callahan agreed, saying that it can't just be about the thumping and banging.
"Putting us three together, all three of us work well down low," Callahan said. "For us, we want to get the puck behind the defensemen and then try to work them. I thought we accomplished that. And, doing that, other plays will open up. We made some nice plays there. It's important for our line to find the back of the net, too."
From the get-go, it was clear that U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma wanted the Backes line against the top Czech unit of Jaromir Jagr, Roman Cervenka and captain Tomas Plekanec. That skilled unit had been a catalyst for the Czechs' 5-3 qualifying win against Slovakia the day before, and Bylsma did not want them to enjoy the same freedom of movement that had marked the early parts of the qualifying game.
"David Backes is unique in that he can go up against size and skill, and I thought he was a horse tonight," Bylsma said. "He was physical. He was tough. I thought he played a great game. To get some offense from that line, I thought they were real big and real tough to play against."
If Bylsma can take credit for reuniting a group that spent time playing together four years ago in Vancouver, he cannot take credit for the big line's "Meat" moniker.
"They're a tough line to play against. In the NHL, each of them on their own team are tough to play against. Putting them all together makes it extra tough," offered U.S. defenseman Ryan Suter, who had three assists versus the Czech Republic and toils on the blue line for the Minnesota Wild. "I thought they played well. They do have some skill. We call them the Meat Line, but they showed a lot of skill."
"I'm the beef, Dustin Brown's the pork and Callahan's the chicken, so that's our Meat Line," Backes quipped.
If there is a constancy to the Olympic tournament, it is the desire to keep pushing forward, to keep finding those elements that need to be put in place to take another step. The Russians never found that, playing by far their best game against the Americans on Saturday in a losing effort and ultimately dropping a 3-1 decision Wednesday to Finland.
Coming into the quarterfinals as the second seed, the U.S. likely deserved a better matchup than a Czech team heavy in established NHLers. Sweden, the No. 1 seed, drew surprise Slovenia and won handily 5-0, while third-seeded Canada drew another surprise team, Latvia, and struggled, finally winning 2-1 to set up the classic semifinal clash with the U.S.
The Americans have played three teams with a significant NHL presence (Slovakia, Russia and the Czechs) in their four games, which might provide them with the challenge needed to take on a deep, richly talented Canadian team and return to the gold-medal game for the second Olympic tournament in a row.
"It sucks that we lost, but they were better," said Czech netminder Alexander Salak, who came on in relief of Winnipeg Jets netminder Pavelec after the Americans' fourth goal. "They have a great team and I hope they're going to get the gold."
Will the tougher road to the semifinals serve the U.S. well? And will Salak get his wish of a gold for the Americans? At least in part, that will be revealed against Canada on Friday. At this point, the U.S. will have to be satisfied in knowing that they continue to build something impressive, perhaps even formidable as they move to the final four of this unpredictable tournament.
"I don't know if we're supposed to meet, but it seems like it was inevitable at some point we'd be meeting," Backes said of the matchup with Canada. "Semifinals in a foreign land. We've traveled 5,000 miles to play each other, and we share a long border with each other. There's great things about this tournament; in order to win it, you're going to have to beat great competition."