-- SOCHI, Russia -- Let's be honest, in their heart of hearts, it really doesn't matter to anyone on this U.S. men's hockey team who it plays if there is a gold medal at the end of the road.
The Americans don't make the schedule. They just play the games.
But let's dig a little deeper in the honesty field, and there is another undeniable truth: The fact that the gold-medal path once again leads through Canada is more than a little OK with Team USA.
There are 13 members of this current team, including nine forwards, who were in Vancouver four years ago and had their hearts pulled from their bodies with Sidney Crosby's overtime goal in the gold-medal game.
On Friday, they will have a chance to avenge that loss in an Olympic semifinal match with Canada, with the winner heading to Sunday's gold-medal game and the loser to Saturday's bronze-medal match.
"I don't think at this stage of the tournament you need any extra incentive or motivation," U.S. captain Zach Parise said Thursday. "The guys that were there in Vancouver, whether it's from being reminded by it, it's definitely in the back of our minds that we want to be on the winning side of that game.
"Everyone from our side, it was a special game, a great game to be part of, a lot of fun. But at the same time, it goes hand-in-hand. You can't think about how fun the game is without thinking about how disappointing the end was. They go together. You have excitement from playing in the game and disappointment from losing."
In an interview shortly before these Olympics, defenseman Brooks Orpik talked about the feeling, bordering on disgust, at the end of that game, as officials hung the silver medals over their necks.
A few hours after the Americans' loss, Orpik was on a charter jet with Crosby back to Pittsburgh, where a group of fans were asking Crosby show off his new gold medal.
Those are memories that have been brought back into sharp focus in the hours leading up to Friday's game.
Coach Dan Bylsma wasn't part of the U.S. team four years ago -- he watched the game in a Pittsburgh deli/bar after his son's youth hockey game -- but he acknowledged this is the matchup his U.S. team has been craving at these Sochi Games.
"The 2010 Games and the gold-medal game has not been very far from a lot of these guys' memories," Bylsma said Thursday. "I think this group has wanted this game and wanted this rematch and they're ready for it."
Is it possible that Friday night's game will simply pick up right where the Vancouver game ended, or as it never ended? It is kind of a romantic notion, but it's not going to happen that way.
Much has changed in four years on both sides of this longstanding, intense rivalry. How could it not?
There is a general consensus that the U.S., winners of four straight games and the most offensively dominant team in the tournament, averaging five goals a game, has come together in an almost textbook fashion.
Part of that is the veteran experience, especially among the forward lines.
Although Canada remains in a state of flux offensively, having scored just 13 times and with 10 of those goals being delivered by three players -- defensemen Drew Doughty (four) and Shea Weber (three) and forward Jeff Carter (three) -- the Americans have an enviable balance of skill and grit up front, and solid, youthful puck-moving defensemen on the back end.
In all, 12 different Americans have scored goals in this tournament, as Bylsma has taken a diametrically different view to building his lineup than his counterpart (and former head coach in Anaheim) Mike Babcock.
Babcock has juggled his lines and his lineup nightly, while Bylsma has for the most part been consistent. The U.S. coaching staff identified its 12 forwards from the get-go and with a minor tinker or two has kept them together. Dustin Brown, for instance, switched places with Parise and now plays with David Backes and Ryan Callahan to form the team's most physical unit and one that will likely see time against Crosby's line Friday.
The defense, too, has been uniform with Bylsma using the same seven defensemen for each game, although he has changed the pairings slightly and has settled on Paul Martin and Orpik together and Ryan McDonagh playing with Ryan Suter, with youngsters Cam Fowler and Kevin Shattenkirk forming the third, albeit very impressive, pair.
If Canada loses Friday night, there will be much criticism of the Canadian approach to its forward group.
If Canada wins -- after already beating the U.S. with gold medals on the line in 2002 and 2010 -- no one will remember what happened in the first four games.
"I can spend a lot of time worrying if I wanted to," Babcock said Thursday. "I think we're going to score. I think we've won every game we've played. That's going to be the goal again tomorrow. You can talk scoring chances till you're blue in the face. Who cares? The score is on the board, and so we've just got to find a way to keep doing what we're doing.
"What everyone on the outside who isn't on the team doesn't necessarily know is we're trying to build a team here, too. We're trying to make everybody important. We knew there was going to be some lineup changes. The other thing about it: When you have a whole group of people, including management, that have different opinions, sometimes things are different. Is it different than running your own team? Absolutely. It's fun."
If Canada must try to find its identity, at least offensively, the Americans can't afford to forget the one they have so clearly defined in advancing to a second straight Olympic semifinal.
For the Americans, this can't be about righting a wrong or undoing the past.
That kind of motivation often leads to individual or undisciplined play.
This game will be a hard-hitting, emotional affair. Losing sight of the building blocks that went into the Americans' four-game winning streak here will be to abandon their identity.
Of all the teams, it is this U.S. squad that has imposed its will on opponents in the most impressive fashion, managing to create chances against more static, defense-oriented teams through aggressive and selfless play.
"I think this is a group of guys who embody that," Bylsma said. "That's their type of player. Seen from our team, Ryan McDonagh put himself in front of [Alex] Ovechkin's slapper on the penalty kill. ... We've seen Ryan Callahan, when the score was 7-1, put his body in front of shots and block shots. We saw the last game Brooks Orpik do it. Our group, that's the type of team we are, those are the type of players we have. We have skill; we have speed. We've seen that with [Phil] Kessel and Patrick Kane. The last game Kessel and Kane were our hardest-working guys working back, getting back for our D and playing that way. That's the type of team we are, we're blue-collar mentality and that's the way we have to play."
It's hard to imagine this game, knowing these two teams, as being anything but as emotional as the two games they played during the Vancouver Olympics.
We're likewise pretty sure that once the puck drops, the last thing on either team's mind will be what happened four years ago, even if it remains a powerful backdrop to what has the potential to be the marquee game of this Olympic tournament.
"You're down two, you get two back, you score with a minute left and you think it was meant to be that you're going to win a gold medal," Backes recalled.
"A couple chances both ways, and the one that went in, and all of a sudden that destiny you felt 20 minutes ago is not meant to be. And months later, you put it in perspective, and you say, 'Hey, I got a silver medal,' and we were part of an amazing team that played in one of the best hockey games ever played. And there's something to be said for that. But if you were on the other end of that, I think it's a lot more sweet."