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SOCHI, Russia – Despite losing a thrilling, hard-fought and highly physical ice sledge hockey contest to Russia, 2-1, the United States battles nemesis Canada in Thursday's semifinal at the Sochi Paralympic Games.

The cohesive U.S. squad is seeking to become the first country to win consecutive gold medals at the Paralympics since the sport made its debut at the 1994 Games.

"We're a tight-knit group, we're all brothers and we've been together for a long time now," said defenseman Taylor Chace, who is competing in his third Paralympics.

Team USA's players range in age from 15 to 35. There are players who were born with impairments and some who have suffered accidents. There are also veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I think the differences are actually something that brings us together," said forward Josh Pauls, 21. "You want to learn about everybody's story; how they got hurt, how they were injured in a hockey game or maybe born disabled. The diversity really helps us."

It's such a fun locker room, we enjoy traveling together and have good team chemistry," said U.S. captain Andy Yohe, 35, a veteran of three Paralympics.

Jeff Sauer, a highly respected collegiate coach, who won national titles with the University of Wisconsin in 1983 and 1990, is the head coach of Team USA in Sochi.

"Each one of them has gone through different things," Sauer said about his players. "I have seen four or five of our guys that two years ago were really depressed, but sledge hockey and camaraderie has put it behind them. Very rarely do I hear them talking about what happened to them. It is more about what we are going to do."

"We've become a family in the locker room and that's how we have to play on the ice," said forward Adam Page, who was born with the birth defect spina bifida.

Uniting sledge hockey players from all nations are a variety of mobility limitations: amputees, spinal cord injuries, spina bifida, in addition to anyone who has a permanent disability that limits participation in stand up hockey.

Double-blade sledges that allow the puck to pass underneath replace skates, and sticks with a spike-end and a blade-end are used. Players propel themselves using the spikes and with a quick flip of the wrist can fire shots on net with the opposite end.

Forward Josh Sweeney played stand-up hockey prior to being injured by an improvised explosive device while serving as a U.S. Marine.

"It kind of brings back that adrenaline rush from past times," Sweeney said about his sport. "I think everybody tries to find a release, whether it be running or something else, and sled hockey definitely does that for me."

Much of the team's success, both in Sochi and Vancouver, can be attributed to 24-year-old goaltender Steve Cash, who until Tuesday night, had not allowed a goal in more than 300 minutes of Paralympics action.

Eight members of the Vancouver gold medal winning team have returned to play in Sochi, with the squad receiving an offensive boost from talented and speedy teen-agers Brody Roybal, 15, and Declan Farmer, 16.

With a greater media presence covering the Sochi Paralympics, in addition to more broadcast hours and web streams than ever before, ice sledge hockey's popularity seems to be rapidly on the rise.

Many club teams around the U.S. are supported and funded by National Hockey League franchises.

"I think it really brings legitimacy to the sport like the Paralympics does," said Pauls, who plays for a club team supported by the NHL's St. Louis Blues. "Having the NHL behind us gives us funding and helps push the sport. It just shows people that it's just another way to play hockey."

A repeat showdown with Russia could be in the cards for Saturday evening's gold medal contest if the U.S. can knock off the undefeated Canadians, a team that has outscored its' opponents 15-1.

"When we get together on the ice, it's such a fun game, it's fast and physical, so we look forward to playing those guys anytime we can," Yohe said about their North American rivals.

Team USA's captain believes that a second consecutive Paralympic gold medal is well within its grasp.

"We knew coming here that it wasn't going to be easy, if it was easy, it wouldn't be that special," Yohe said. "We came here to defend our gold medal and that's what we're going to do."

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the NHL team that supports Josh Pauls' club team. It is the St. Louis Blues.

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