By Dan Burns and Mark Trevelyan
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - Vasili Koshechkin recorded a shutout to lift the Russian men past the Czech Republic 3-0 on Friday, giving them a chance at their first Olympic gold medal in men's ice hockey for more than a quarter of a century.
In a rematch of sorts from their last shot at gold in Nagano in 1998, the Russians turned the tables on the Czechs, who then foiled their hopes by beating them 1-0 on a brilliant goaltending performance by Dominik Hasek.
It was Russia's netminder who dominated on Friday with Koshechkin turning aside 31 Czech shots in his second shutout of the Games.
"He's been our best player this tournament," Russian forward Mikhail Grigorenko said of Koshechkin. "He's just been making a lot of saves. He made some huge saves tonight, and he was good."
Koshechkin has the tournament's lowest goals against average at 1.08 and has stopped more than 95 percent of shots put on the Russian goal.
The Russians, playing as the Olympic Athletes from Russia because of a doping ban, won thanks to second-period goals by Nikita Gusev and Vladislav Gavrikov less than a minute apart and a smothering defense.
It was a cautious, tight-checking game before a crowd dominated by jubilant, flag-waving Russian fans, many of whom had come directly from seeing teenage figure skater Alina Zagitova deliver the country's first gold medal of the Pyeongchang Games.
After a scoreless first period, the Russians broke the deadlock midway through the second period.
Pavel Datsyuk, the Russian captain and two-times Stanley Cup winner with the Detroit Red Wings, came in on the right wing and fed the puck across the goal mouth to Gusev, who fired a wrist shot behind Pavel Francouz.
Ivan Telegin then swept into the Czech zone and back-handed it in front of the goal to Gavrikov and he redirected it mid-air past Francouz.
Ilya Kovalchuk rounded out the scoring with an empty-net goal late in the third period, padding his status as the highest-scoring Russian in Olympic ice hockey. A 12-season veteran of the NHL who now plays for the St. Petersburg team in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, Kovalchuk has 14 career Olympic goals.
Coming into the first Olympic tournament without NHL players in more than two decades, Russia's Big Red Machine were the team to beat, stocked with former NHL talent and players from the KHL, seen as the world's second-best pro league.
They had a hiccup in their first game, blowing a two-goal lead to lose 3-2 to Slovakia, but they have been on a roll since, winning four straight and outscoring opponents 21-3.
They appear determined to overcome their embarrassing showing in Sochi when, as Olympic hosts, they did not make the medal round.
"We've been striving for this for years," Russian coach Oleg Znarok said
The Russians last won a gold medal in hockey in 1992 in Albertville, France, in the first Winter Olympics of the post-Soviet Union era. As the Soviets, they won seven gold medals in nine Games from 1956 to 1988.
The arena was rife with Russian fans displaying tricolor flags from many corners of the country, from Kursk to Kazan and Siberia, and drowning out the smaller number of Czech fans with chants of "Russia" and "Shaibu!", which roughly translates to "Score a goal!".
The Russians are guaranteed an Olympic medal in men's ice hockey for the first time since the 2002 Salt Lake City Games where they won bronze.
They will play Canada or Germany in the final on Sunday.
(Reporting by Dan Burns, editing by Ed Osmond)