Americans hitting full stride


ST. PAUL, Minn. -- As he prepared to face Finland in the semifinals of the World Cup of Hockey, Team USA forward Keith Tkachuk talked about the importance of peaking at the right time and finishing strong. He spoke like an authority on the topic, and if you were to ask for his credentials, Tkachuk might show you an
Olympic silver medal to prove that he knows of which he speaks.

It was just two years ago in Salt Lake City that the Americans learned that lesson from 20 professors with red maple leaves on the front of their sweaters. Where the Canadians had looked dreadful early in the 2002 Winter Games, Team USA tore through its competition and took a 4-0-1 mark into the final. But Team Canada had rebounded in a big way from its slow start, improved as the tournament went on, and beat the Americans 5-2 for the gold medal.

"We were perfect until that last game, when we ran out of gas, while they just kept getting better and better," said Tkachuk.

While the Americans aren't looking past their Friday night appointment with Finland (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) in St. Paul and talking about a rematch with Team Canada just yet, more than a few World Cup followers have noted that the Canadians head into the semifinals undefeated, while the Americans (who looked tired a week ago) seem to be hitting their stride.

"We've got a great bunch of guys who are all playing well at the right time," Tkachuk said. "In a tournament like this, you've got to get better and better. That's what Canada did in '02."

It was a rare moment of reflection for Tkachuk, who otherwise refused to look back even 48 hours to his four-goal outburst in the Americans' 5-3 quarterfinal
win over Russia.

"It was nice, but it's over with," was all he said. "If you look back, you'll be going home."

Team USA coach Ron Wilson said that while he would've liked a better start to the tournament, he's happy with the way his team is playing now. For good measure, he took a shot at the media for talking gloom and doom a week ago when his team looked slow in a 3-1 loss to Russia.

"One game shouldn't taint anything, but you guys fan the flames of disaster anytime anything bad happens," Wilson told reporters after the team's morning practice at the Xcel Energy Center. "We've had just one soft outing, against Russia. Other than that we've played well. And we're playing well right now, which is all that really matters."

But in other recent settings, Wilson has said that his team is starting to play its best hockey. Interviewed on ESPN2 between periods of Wednesday's Canada-Slovakia game, Wilson was asked about how dominating the undefeated Canadians have been thus far, compared to his team, which is 2-2-0. Wilson
replied that it's easier to win four games in a row than it is to win six in a row. His team is clearly feeling good about itself after back-to-back victories, and coping well as the stakes get higher.

"With each step along the way, you feel pressure," Wilson said. "But confidence helps build a cocoon around you to deflect pressure. Our goal was to get to this point and be on top of our game."

Wilson's roster moves of a week ago -- most notably taking veterans like Brett Hull and Brian Rolston out of the lineup -- seem to have paid immediate dividends and any tension that the juggling may have caused in the locker room isn't apparent. The players generally seemed loose and jovial on Thursday, and forward Bill Guerin (a Boston College product) even launched another salvo in his on-going battle for college pride with Tkachuk. After Tuesday's game,
Tkachuck (a Boston University product) had joked that Guerin had gone to, "the second-best school in Boston." On Thursday, Guerin fired back.

"He's right. Boston College is the second-best school in Boston," said Guerin, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. "Harvard is one of the finest schools in the
world. As for Keith, I think he went to a place called Commonwealth Avenue Community College, and I'm not sure if they're ranked anywhere."

It should be noted that if this friendly skirmish were to escalate, there are twice as many ex-Terriers (Tkachuk, Rick DiPietro, Tony Amonte and Chris Drury)
as ex-Eagles (Guerin and Brian Leetch) on the Team USA roster.

Levity aside, coach and players alike praised the Finns, who bring an undefeated 3-0-1 record across the Atlantic. But while expressing reverence for Saku Koivu and Miikka Kiprusoff, Wilson issued a warning to the Finnish players who have earned a reputation for physical play before and after the whistle.

"They may have played that way in the European pool, but they'll know in their room that they're not going to intimidate us," Wilson said. "If their game plan is
to push us and hit us, they're going down the wrong road."

Jess Myers covers college and pro hockey for ESPN.com affiliate insidecollegehockey.com and for the Twin Cities bureau of The Associated Press.