VANCOUVER, British Columbia — In its inexorable march toward a showdown with Canada for the gold medal and supremacy in women's hockey, the United States has traveled a path of little resistance.
Against Finland in their final opening-round game Thursday, the U.S. faced its biggest speed bump to date in a team that had also won its first two games.
The smooth ride continued for the Americans as they eased into the semifinals with a 6-0 victory over the Finns at UBC Thunderbird Arena.
Don't let the score fool you. It was the Americans' toughest test, for sure, no matter how dominating.
Natalie Darwitz continued her strong Winter Games with a goal and two assists and Molly Engstrom had a goal and assist while goaltender Jessie Vetter recorded her second consecutive shutout. She has yet to give up a goal.
The margin of victory was the smallest for the U.S. in the three games its played (China 12-1 on Sunday; Russia 13-0 on Tuesday). The United States advanced to the medal round and will play Sweden in Monday's semifinals. The Swedes knocked the U.S. out of gold-medal contention in the semis of the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.
Finland will face Canada in the other semifinal with the winners facing off for the gold medal.
"We had some opportunities to play in our defensive zone, which obviously we don't want, but we're going to get tested in the next few games in our own zone," said Darwitz, who set an American record for points in a single Olympics as she boosted her total to 11 (four goals, seven assists). "That was more of the rhythm of a real game for us, back and forth."
The first half of the opening period was evenly-matched before the U.S. exploded with goals by Julie Chu, Engstrom and Meghan Duggan in a span of less than four minutes and Darwitz tacking on another late in the first.
"It was more of a hockey game," Engstrom said. "Finland we always know is going to bring their game. It's a good thing because we have to get on our toes because the next couple of games are going to be tough."
Hilary Knight made it 5-0 in the second and Karen Thatcher closed the scoring for the U.S. with a goal in the waning minutes of the third.
While the offense was doing its thing, Vetter was on top of her game. She made 23 saves, including a penalty shot by Anne Helin with just under six minutes remaining in the third, and has now stopped all 30 opponents shots she's faced in the tournament.
"Right now I'm seeing the puck well and just enjoying being out there," Vetter said. "We knew we had to come in prepared and ready to play (and) we played some good hockey.
"I think getting challenge by Finland definitely can help you moving on to the next stage of the tournament. Every game you have to take something out of it and improve and I think we've been able to do that all three games we've played."