By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The drama begins in earnest for the United States and the seven other teams that that have made it to the quarterfinals of men’s Olympic hockey competition.
The U.S. came up with a gold medal effort in its instant-classic 3-2 shootout victory over Russia on Saturday, but the Americans will have to come up with three more similar performances if they’re going to come away with top honors in Sochi.
Still, they are in a sensational position, and they appear to be playing as well as any team as the quarterfinals get underway. In this piece we will look at the key factors in each of the four matchups set for Wednesday.
United States vs. Czech Republic
The Americans bring explosive speed and game-breaking skill to the matchup with the Czech Republic. Head coach Dan Bylsma wants to see his team use its speed and aggressiveness to get the edge on the Czechs and any subsequent matchups.
That means Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and Zach Parise are going to have to lead the way. They are quickest and most explosive skaters, and they regularly play without hesitation in the offensive zone. Kessel is coming off a three-goal performance in the Americans’ last game against Slovenia.
The speed and precision with the puck may be most important factor against the Czech Republic. A look at the Czech roster reveals some highly skilled offensive players, but defense is questionable.
The presence of Tomas Kaberle on the Czech blue line means the Americans have a real target to attack. Kaberle does not like contact, and if the Americans can put the body on him, they should be able to force turnovers.
The Czechs broke quickly and then held on to defeat Slovakia, 5-3, to advance to the quarterfinals. However, they lack the depth to compete with the Americans. If Team USA can get a couple of goals early and play from the lead, it will be difficult for the Czechs to play with the United State for 60 minutes.
Prediction: United States 5, Czech Republic 2
Canada vs Latvia
This appears to be a runaway for Team Canada, but Sidney Crosby has yet to hit his stride and the Canadians’ high-powered forwards are still searching for the right formula.
There’s only so long that the Canadian can be held in check. Head coach Mike Babcock would like to see his offense break loose in this game before it plays the United States (most likely) in the semifinals. In addition to Crosby, Babcock will be looking for Corey Perry and John Tavares to get going. A big game from Jonathan Toews would also put a smile on his face.
Latvia couldn’t win a game in the preliminary round, but it found a way to get past the Swiss. They will attempt to play a hard-hitting, heavy game, but it seems unlikely that defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh and his teammates will hold Canada in check.
The only chance for a Latvian upset is keeping the game close for two periods and hoping that Canadian goalie Carey Price makes a big mistake in the third period.
Prediction: Canada 5, Latvia 1
Sweden vs. Slovenia
The Swedes had the easiest draw to get to the quarterfinals, and they will be pushed hard by a loose Slovenian team that has already exceeded expectations by getting to the quarterfinals.
The Swedes have remarkable talent on the defensive end. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya of the Blackhawks are the Swedish team’s shutdown pair, and they are likely to be on the ice every time Anze Kopitar of the Kings is skating for Slovenia. The Slovenians play hard and are gritty, but they don’t have the upper-level talent to stay with Sweden.
Even if the Swedes don’t play their best game, they have Henrik Lundqvist in the net, and he is at the top of his game. Look for Daniel Alfredsson, Alex Steen and Loui Eriksson to provide the production as the Swedes dismiss the feisty Slovenians.
Prediction: Sweden 4, Slovenia 1
Finland vs. Russia
The Russians gave themselves a very tough road when they dropped the shootout to Team USA and were pushed into extra time before beating the Slovakians. That’s why they had to defeat Norway to earn a spot in the quarterfinals.
But make no mistake about it: The Russians are still dangerous. Alex Ovechkin is still the most dangerous shooter in the Olympics, while nobody is going to slow down Pavel Datsyuk, the Red Wings center who is at the top of his game. Throw in Evgeni Malkin and hard-shooting Ilya Kovalchuk, and the Russians are still a gold medal threat.
The Finns can’t match the Russians in firepower. Injuries to Miikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula hurt, but even with those two they would not be able to compete with the elite teams in scoring. However, the Finns excel on special teams, and they have a slew of outstanding goaltenders in Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen.
Rask appears to be the No. 1 goalie, but he has given up a few shaky goals in the Olympics. That will keep the Finns from advancing to the semifinals.
Prediction: Russia 4, Finland 2