SOCHI, Russia – They've pretty much been climbing Mount Maple Leaf their whole lives, working to surge higher in the name of USA Hockey.
All along, they've carried the stigma of being North American hockey's little brother.
Good, but not quite as good as the Canadians. On the verge of putting the American flag at the mountain top, but never quite able to make it stand.
Such as 2002 in Salt Lake City, when Canada defeated Team USA 5-2 for Olympic gold. Like 2010 in Vancouver, when the host Canadians prevailed 3-2 in overtime.
And now, here they are again, ready for another showdown on Olympic ice, this time in the semifinals at Bolshoy Ice Dome. The puck drops at noon on Friday.
"We're excited for the challenge," center Ryan Kesler said. "We have a lot to prove still."
Namely, that the best of the U.S. can beat the Canadians when it matters most.
"They're the team that's always there at the end," Team USA defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "That's what makes you a powerhouse.
"We've worked our way up to this point and now we expect to be here all the time."
Earning another big-stage meeting with Canada is nice but the Americans know the need to take the next step. And to do so, they must continue to use their speed, continue to attack, continue to bang bodies.
"We have to play our absolute best hockey," winger Max Pacioretty said. "They've got the best players in the world."
Indeed, the Canadian roster is a never-ending list of all-stars. From Sidney Crosby to Jonathan Toews to Ryan Getzlaf to Patrice Bergeron to Shea Weber to Drew Doughty.
Individually, these are the players you have to stop when you face their teams in the NHL. Together, on one roster, the challenge they pose is formidable.
Team USA wouldn't want it any other way.
"You always want to beat the top teams," said defenseman Ryan Suter, who very likely will log major minutes on Friday. "You always want to play the best and (Friday) we get that chance."
So far, a case could be made that the Americans have been the better team. They are 4-0 and have outscored opponents 19-6 during regulation and overtime. Canada also is 4-0, with sufficient goal support and a stingy team defense (13-3 in goals for and against).
In three of their four games, the Canadians seemingly have done just enough to win. In the preliminary round they defeated Norway 3-1 and Finland 2-1. They dominated against Latvia but needed a power-play goal by Weber late in the third period to win 2-1, despite a 57-16 shot advantage.
Where is the offense? Crosby? Toews? Corey Perry? Where did the goals all go? The Americans don't care.
"We'll kind of approach it like a sleeping bear," Shattenkirk said. "We don't want to do anything to awaken it."
The fear coming to Sochi was that the larger ice surface being used again in the Olympics would adversely impact the Americans (and Canadians for that matter). The U.S. looks right at home, however.
Apparently desire and a willingness to sacrifice for the team translate well on international ice.
"There's some things that don't change, like being a competitor and winning battles," winger James van Riemsdyk said. "Usually if you're winning battles, it doesn't matter what size the rink is."
The opponent does matter, though. It's Team USA vs. Team Canada again, with Canada still king of the hill.
"It's what it's all about, Canada-U.S.A.," said Toews, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks. "It's become even a bigger rivalry than Canada-Russia. … It doesn't get any better than that, playing for your country and going against the United States. There are millions of kids that grow up dreaming of this situation. We have a chance of making a dream come true."
"The Americans have challenged that in recent years, back in 2002, back in 2010," Team USA coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think this is the biggest and best one (rivalry) in hockey, and this will be the next one."
For that reason, it's a very special game.
"It's more special," winger Joe Pavelski said, "when you win."
Includes reporting by The Associated Press
U.S. vs. Canada
What: The United States plays Canada in a men's semifinal game at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
When: Noon, Friday.
TV: NBCSN (NBC Sports Network, Time Warner Cable channel 69 in Rochester).