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Winter Olympics 2014 hockey results: Brianna Decker's 3 points help USA to gold-medal game

USA rolled past Sweden in the semifinal round, setting up a rematch with Canada for the gold medal.

USA's Brianna Decker shoots and scores against Sweden in Monday's Olympic semifinal.
USA's Brianna Decker shoots and scores against Sweden in Monday's Olympic semifinal.
Bruce Bennett

With a goal and two assists in Monday’s game, Brianna Decker catapulted into a tie for the Olympic lead with six points thus far in Sochi.

The semifinal match-up with Sweden was not one Team USA was anticipating. Sweden upset Finland in the quarterfinals, showing nothing can be assumed. However, it might have used all its energy to get past the Lions, as Team USA had no problem handling the Swedes, out-shooting them 70-9 over the course of three periods and winning the game, 6-1.

One thing the Swedes did manage to do was neutralize Hilary Knight, who had led the tournament in points entering the day. She was something of a non-factor in this game, barely having her name called or seeming to be involved in play. It was something I wished the announcers acknowledged more of, as we didn’t get to see much of it on the broadcast. Sweden packed the front of the net, normally Knight’s milieu.

Team USA was forced to move the puck outside more, though that didn’t keep anyone off the board as was evidenced in the blue-line goals scored by Megan Bozek and Kacey Bellamy. I had criticized the consistent long shots from Bozek in early games as not necessarily the best use of the puck; I’m still not convinced I wasn’t right in those early games, but in this instance, with the clogged goal-mouth, the US spreading the ice pulled the defense enough to give lanes. Rocketing the puck on net in this instance will almost always get you a tip or a deflection, though those weren’t really even needed. The shots the back line put on net were lasers that the screened goalies never saw.

That defensive strategy shouldn’t have been enough to completely stunt Knight’s game, though. Her size alone should've given her an advantage, so I’d be interested to know if Sweden double-teamed her or how they worked to keep her from being as key in this game as she’d been in the previous three.

For some reason, the smaller-stature players were the ones finding success against Sweden.

Positively for Team USA, it didn’t need Knight. The line with Monique Lamoureux, Jocelyne Lamoureux and Meghan Duggan saw a lot of ice time and their peskiness served the team well. Kendall Coyne and Decker were also successful -- for some reason, the smaller-stature players were the ones finding success against Sweden.

The score likely should've been more lopsided, but Sweden’s starting goalie Valentina Wallner was spectacular in net. Despite the score, with USA peppering her with so many shots, her save percentage was still greater than 90 percent.

Sweden eventually lifted Wallner in favor of her backup, likely to ease the psychological burden of getting peppered and scored on so often, but her effort is one that should be noted. Wallner will be a force for her team in years to come the way Noora Raty has been for Finland.

Later on Monday, Canada beat Switzerland despite a ridiculously great individual effort by Swiss goalie Florence Schelling. Non-North American goaltending has to be a major storyline coming out of these games.

The stage is now set for the USA-Canada gold-medal game everyone hoped for when the games began. History is on Team USA’s side in that every time the two teams have met twice in a tournament (once in prelims, once for gold) the team that won the first meeting lost in the medal round. The Americans were disappointed and embarrassed by their showing against Canada last week and you can be sure they won’t allow themselves to be so sloppy again. For Canada, the game plan won’t change much. What they did was so effective that they’ll look to continue to try to neutralize USA’s speed, interrupt its flow and prevent it from stringing together passes.

The Americans need to not get frazzled by the game not being as easy as their others, look to establish themselves in the offensive zone and use their size more to their advantage. Defense is definitely USA’s weakest link, and it has not been tested often. The Americans were caught out of position and flat-footed by a couple of Canadian plays, and those were the difference in the first game. Smarter play and remembering to not be entirely focused on the Canadian net will be key for them. Yes, scoring will be important, but they shouldn’t get in a virtual shootout with Canada during regulation. Instead of trying to score as many goals as possible, they need to be smarter about their chances and smarter still about protecting the puck and their defensive end.