Hometown Russians appear to have an easy path to the quarterfinals
The fun is over, and now it's down to business for the hockey teams vying for a slice of Sochi gold. First up, on Tuesday, are four qualification games. The winners of these games will advance to the quarterfinals. Here's a breakdown:
No. 5 Russia versus No. 12 Norway
Winner plays Finland
Four years ago in Vancouver, the host country used a qualifying playoff game against Germany to gets its spirits back up after losing to Team USA in the prelims. It worked. Canada never looked back. Russia can follow the same path. Norway, meanwhile, has to sit back and try to frustrate the high-octane offense of Russia with a stifling, patient defensive game and hope the Russians start to force plays in order to jump on turnovers. But who's kidding whom? This is going to be tough sledding for the Norwegians. Hey, Belarus beat Sweden in the 2002 Olympic quarterfinals -- it's true. So you never know.
No. 6 Switzerland versus No. 11 Latvia
Winner plays Canada
It's been very tempting to pencil in the impressive Swiss team into a quarterfinal with Team Canada, but don't overlook Latvia here. Ted Nolan's well-coached team hung around with the Swiss in a 1-0 loss in the Olympic opener and also gave Sweden all it could handle in a 5-3 loss. Both teams play a patient game and wait for mistakes from the opposition.
This will be a low-scoring game once again. The Swiss, who can play with the big boys in international hockey, should prevail over Latvia, but I don't think it's going to be easy by any measure. A factor in the outcome will be special teams. Staying disciplined will be important for keeping the other team off the power play. The Latvians have to stay out of the box in order to have a chance to win.
Czech Republic (7) versus Slovakia (10)
Winner plays the Unites States
This is the most compelling of the four qualification games, as these former countrymen, now neighbors, have both seen their hockey fortunes wane in recent years. The two combined for just one win in the preliminary round, and the Slovaks, who were blasted by the U.S. to start and then upset by Slovenia, managed to score just two goals in three games. But they delivered a much stronger performance in their final game, basically playing powerful Russia to a standstill before losing 1-0 in a shootout. Look for Jan Laco to follow up his grand performance in goal against Russia for Slovakia. "We lost three times, but the mood is very good because we took a point from the Russia game," Slovakian head coach Vladimir Vujtek said Monday. "It was like a victory for us."
From Sochi, Russia, Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss the preliminary round for Canada, Russia and the U.S., which has been the most functional team so far, and much more.
Slovenia (8) versus Austria (9)
Winner plays Sweden
No doubt Slovenia is the surprise team of this tournament. In its first Olympic tournament, even the players admitted they didn't really expect to win. Not only did the Slovenians get a win, upsetting Slovakia 3-1, they put themselves in a position in which they could actually advance to a quarterfinal. And despite the 5-1 score, the U.S. talked about how difficult Slovenia is to play against. It uses an aggressive two-man forecheck and the team is relentless. Outside Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, Slovenia does not boast any NHL talent, and Kopitar left Sunday's game against the U.S. with a stomach virus. If he can't play, the Slovenian's chances of advancing take a big hit. But there was optimism Monday he will be in the lineup.
"We said that every point is going to be a miracle for us," Slovenian netminder Robert Kristan said Monday. "But, of course, we are not going to celebrate and stop playing because we have a pretty good chance to make it to the quarterfinals. If we had wished for an opponent before the tournament, we would probably have picked Austria."
Austria, meanwhile, has proven NHL scorers in Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner, who leads the tournament with five goals. Michael Raffl is also a player with NHL pedigree. But the Austrians have struggled in goal and with their team defense, allowing 15 goals -- most in the tournament.