U.S. dominates Czech Republic and Canada survives Latvia to set up Olympic semis clash in Sochi

U.S. dominates Czech Republic and Canada survives Latvia to set up Olympic semis clash in Sochi

It’s the one Olympic matchup every American hockey fan has wanted for almost four years now and, by virtue of Wednesday’s respective results in Sochi, it’s less than 48 hours away.

The United States whitewashed Jake Voracek, Jaromir Jagr and the rest of the Czech Republic, 5-2, and Canada hung on for a 2-1 over Latvia (!) to set up a titanic rematch of the 2010 gold medal game in Vancouver that could be louder than that THUNDER SNOW that shook your house Wednesday morning.

The U.S. got a quick jump on the Czechs when James van Riemsdyk -- who was traded for Luke Schenn, who is not an Olympian -- beat netminder Ondrej Pavelec from a terrible angle just under two minutes into the game.

The Czechs tied it up shortly thereafter but the Americans regained the lead when David Backes slid a beautiful cross-ice pass to Dustin Brown, who jammed it home. Backes then scored from an impossible angle with just 1.8 seconds left in the first period for a 3-1 lead and the backbreaker.

Zach Parise ended Pavelec’s day with another goal from a miserable angle to make 4-1 early in the second period and that was all she wrote. Phil Kessel scored in third and the Czechs added a garbage-time goal before the buzzer sounded but the Americans already had their tickets punched to the semis.

Jonathan Quick made 21 saves for the U.S. in the victory.

The Canada/Lativa game was a whole different monster for a variety of reasons but mostly because of the Canadians’ inability to put the Latvians away.

Patrick Sharp scored early to put Canada on top 1-0. But the Latvians quickly answered with a breakaway goal to knot things up.

That’s when Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis – don’t even ask for a proper pronunciation of that mouthful – took over and stole the show.

Gudlevskis was superb in making 55 - count ‘em - 55 saves for his team, which was outshot 57-16 in the game. He had almost every answer.

The key word there was almost because defenseman Shea Weber – who has found his way into every Flyers fan’s dreams for years now – blasted home a power-play goal from the point for the game-winning tally late in the third period

After Canada’s close call, here we are with the mother of all rematches and a trip to the gold medal game on the line.

So then, who has the edge?

A glance at the rosters seems to show the Americans have better goaltending, the Canadians have better defensemen and the respective groups of forwards are a toss-up.

That’s why they play the games, though.

Canada has scored 13 goals through four games in the tournament so far. That’s good for 3.25 goals per game. But that’s very misleading for a few reasons.

Canada’s six-goal performance against lowly Austria was the only time it scored more than three goals in a game. Also, Canada’s forwards have grossly underperformed. Forwards have scored just six of Canada’s 13 goals, and four of those six goals came against the overmatched Austrians.

In fact, Weber and fellow defenseman Drew Doughty have combined for the other seven goals.

All that against defenses like Norway, Austria and Latvia that have played much worse than the Americans’ defense.

On the other hand, the Americans are averaging five goals per game and their lowest goal output so far was three when they met the Russians in that instant classic this past Saturday.

With five goals, Kessel himself has nearly as many goals as all Canadian forwards.

The mostly young U.S. defense has impressed as well. That corps has let up just six goals in four games. Of course it helps having Quick and Ryan Miller between the pipes, but still quite the feat. Just look at the way guys like Ryan McDonough and Cam Fowler played against the uber-talented (and disappointing) Russians. They smothered the skilled Russians into submission.

So, I’m giving the edge to the Americans due to offensive balance, better performances against more skilled teams than Canada has faced and because they are playing a better overall team game right now.

But don’t get it wrong. Canada is still incredibly dangerous

Oh, baby. It’s on.

Get ready, Canada. We’re coming for you.

And, in the spirit of a totally unbiased journalist, go ‘Merica.

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

Best of NBA: Wall, Wizards top Knicks for 4th straight win

NEW YORK -- John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists, scoring Washington's final four points in the last 32 seconds as the surging Wizards beat the New York Knicks 113-110 on Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall down the stretch to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Carmelo Anthony's miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

Anthony finished with 34 points but Wall stole the ball from Brandon Jennings to prevent the Knicks from attempting a 3-pointer that could have tied it (see full recap).

Leonard scores 34 to lead Spurs over Nuggets
SAN ANTONIO -- Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver's three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson's shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol's return.

Irving, James lead Cavs over Suns
CLEVELAND -- Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, All-Star teammate LeBron James had 21 points and 15 assists, and the Cleveland Cavaliers looked more like themselves at home in a 118-103 win over the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.

The Cavs were back in Quicken Loans Arena following a six-game road trip (their longest of the season) that concluded with an embarrassing 35-point loss at Golden State. But on their home floor, they had better offensive balance and ball movement while improving to 30-11 -- the same record Cleveland had at the halfway point of its 2016 NBA championship season.

Channing Frye scored 18, Iman Shumpert 17 and James Jones 14 while filling in for star forward Kevin Love, still bothered by back spasms.

Tyson Chandler had 22 points and 16 rebounds, but the Suns lost for the fourth time in five games (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

Best of NHL: Surging Capitals rock Blues in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- Andre Burakovsky, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov each had a goal and an assist to lead the Washington Capitals to a 7-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Jay beagle, Brett Connolly, Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams also scored, and Alex Ovechkin and Daniel Winnik each had two assists to help Washington earn at least a point in its 12th straight game (10-0-2) for an NHL-best 66 points.

Braden Holtby bounced back from his roughest outing of the season with 22 saves. Holtby was pulled after giving up a season-high five goals on 26 shots in an 8-7 overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Monday. He improved to 22-8-4 and 5-0 lifetime against St. Louis (see full recap).

Grabner scores 2 goals, Rangers top Leafs
TORONTO -- Michael Grabner scored two goals against his former team, helping the New York Rangers snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Pavel Buchnevich, Brady Skjei and J.T. Miller added goals for New York, and Henrik Lundqvist made 23 saves following a series of rough outings.

Tyler Bozak and Zach Hyman scored for Toronto, which had a three-game winning streak stopped. The Maple Leafs had earned 21 of a possible 26 points in their previous 13 games (10-2-1). Frederik Andersen gave up four goals on 40 shots (see full recap).

Tavares leads Islanders to shutout of Stars
NEW YORK -- Getting a new coach this week didn't change things much for the Islanders -- and oddly enough, that's a good thing for New York.

John Tavares narrowly missed out on his second hat trick in a week, Thomas Greiss got his second straight shutout and the Islanders beat the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Thursday night in their first game since firing longtime coach Jack Capuano.

New York canned Capuano in the middle of his seventh season Tuesday, replacing him on an interim basis with Doug Weight (see full recap).

Niederreiter, Wild dodge letdown, edge Coyotes
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nino Niederreiter had two power-play goals and an assist, including the go-ahead score for the Minnesota Wild with 7:06 remaining in a 4-3 victory over Arizona on Thursday night after the Coyotes came back from a two-goal deficit.

With Shane Doan in the penalty box for hooking, Niederreiter knocked in a nifty redirect of Mikael Granlund's slap shot for the winner. Devan Dubnyk stopped 20 shots for the Wild, who are 18-2-2 in their last 22 games.

Louis Domingue made 21 saves for the Coyotes, who lost their fourth in a row and fell to 2-12-1 in their last 15 games starting with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota in Arizona on Dec. 17 (see full recap).