United States celebrates a win over Germany in a preliminary round men's hockey game at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Beijing. Credit: Petr David Josek / AP

BEIJING — The team in red, white and blue now has the easiest path to gold.

The young United States men’s hockey team held on to beat Germany 3-2 Sunday night, finishing the preliminary round unbeaten and clinching the top seed in the knockout round at the Olympics. The Americans move directly into the quarterfinals and next play the lowest remaining seed from the qualification round.

Steven Kampfer scored on the power play less than three minutes after Germany took the lead, Matt Knies put the U.S. ahead and Drew Commesso made 24 saves for his second victory in as many starts. After Tom Kuhnhackl scored for Germany with 2:29 left, Nathan Smith’s goal early in the third period turned out to be the game-winner.

It was a tougher matchup than expected against the reigning silver medalists, who held on to beat China two nights after the U.S. blew out the host country 8-0. Even more than the showdown against Canada, tensions boiled over between the U.S. and Germany with shouting from bench to bench and more than the usual amount of post-whistle scrums.

Through all that, the U.S. took care of business against a less talented but hard-working opponent and became the only team to win all three group stage games in regulation.

Second-seeded Finland, the third-seeded Russians and fourth-seeded Sweden also move on to the quarterfinals. Finland erased a three-goal deficit to beat Sweden 4-3 in overtime and move ahead of its archrival in the standings.

Finland’s comeback pushed Canada out of the top four. The fifth-seeded Canadians will face China again in the qualification round Tuesday, a rematch of Canada’s 5-0 win Sunday.

Sixth-seeded Denmark faces 11th-seeded Latvia, the seventh-seeded Czech Republic faces 10th-seeded Switzerland, and eighth-seeded Germany faces ninth-seeded Slovakia. NHL draft-eligible 17-year-old Juraj Slafkovsky scored his fourth goal to help Slovakia beat Latvia 5-2 for its first victory at the Olympics.

As the No. 1 seed, the U.S. can avoid the defending champion and pre-tournament favorite Russians and the impressive Finns until the gold-medal game.

The Americans improved to 3-0-0 despite playing their second game without defenseman Jake Sanderson, who was injured in the first period against Canada on Saturday but finished that game. Sanderson also missed the opener against China because virus testing issues left him in Los Angeles while the rest of the team traveled to Beijing.

USA Hockey listed Sanderson as day to day. It was not immediately clear if he was in danger of not playing in the quarterfinals Wednesday.

Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press