For the top NHL players whose teams aren't still competing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there's no bigger thrill at this time of year than battling for their countries in an attempt to win gold at the IIHF World Championship.
The tension and excitement are about to ratchet up a notch with the quarterfinal round of the 2011 tournament scheduled to be played Wednesday and Thursday in the Slovakian capital city of Bratislava.
The U.S., which hasn't won the tournament since 1960 and last medaled with a bronze in 2004, has a tough draw in the defending champion Czech Republic. Canada, meanwhile, faces a stiff test of its own against Russia as it shoots for its first gold since 2004. The Canadians earned silver in 2008 and 2009 before finishing out of the medals last year.
Here's a capsule look at each of the four quarterfinals:
United States vs. Czech Republic, 10:15 a.m. ET
The United States has had a rocky time of it at the 2011 IIHF World Championships. The U.S. opened the tournament with a 5-1 romp over Austria in the preliminary, but after needing a four-goal third period to top the Norwegians 4-2 in its next game the Americans finished the preliminary round with a 6-2 pounding at the hands of Sweden and then went just 1-1-1 in the qualifying round with the highlight possibly being a 4-3 shootout loss to Canada rather than a 3-2 win against the French. Certainly, the Americans' surprising 5-3 loss to Switzerland on Monday will not be its fondest memory of the tournament.
The U.S. has gotten strong performances out of Rangers forward Derek Stepan, who leads the team with 7 points, and Predators prospect Craig Smith, who is next with 6, but the recent addition of James van Riemsdyk, who has made the trip to Slovakia after his Flyers were swept by Boston in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, could provide a significant offensive boost. Van Riemsdyk scored in the only game he has played in the tournament thus far.
The Czech Republic, in stark contrast, enters the playoff round a perfect 6-0-0 so far in the tournament, with wins coming in dominating fashion, such as a 6-0 victory over Denmark, or in tight games against top opponents like the Czechs' 3-2 win over Russia in the qualifying round. A plethora of Czech stars have been lighting up the scoresheet, with the all-time leading scorer in New Jersey franchise history, Patrik Elias, leading the way with 7 points. Elias, who is seeking his first ever title in an international tournament, has been bolstered by Martin Havlat and Tomas Plekanec, who each have 6 points, and former NHL star Jaromir Jagr, who has 5 points in 6 games.
Sweden vs. Germany, 2:15 p.m. ET
A bronze medalist in each of the past two World Championships, once again Tre Kronor is a threat to capture goal as it has won four of six games through the preliminary and qualifying rounds. Goaltender Viktor Fasth has been in net for each of the victories, including back-to-back shutouts of France and Switzerland before Sweden was edged 3-2 by Canada in its most recent game with Erik Ersberg in goal. While Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin are among the high-end talent still plying their trade in the NHL, key contributors have included Patrik Berglund, who has a team-leading 5 goals, Magnus Paajarvi, with 1 goal and 4 assists, and Loui Eriksson and Mikael Backlund, with 2 goals and 1 assist each.
The previous host nation, Germany began the 2011 Worlds by shocking Russia 2-0 behind Dennis Endras, who not only made the tournament All-Star Team but was selected Most Valuable Player in Cologne a year ago. While it's been a more difficult road for the Germans since that upset, coach Uwe Krupp, a long-time NHL defenseman, has this squad prepared to compete with anyone. Marcel Mueller, who played three games for the Maple Leafs this season, has 1 goal and 5 points to lead Germany in scoring. Forward John Tripp, who amassed 43 games of NHL experience for the Rangers and Kings from 2002-04, has scored 3 goals.
Finland vs. Norway, 10:15 a.m. ET
Looking to medal for the first time since taking home bronze in 2008, the Finnish team has been led offensively by the heroics of Jarkko Immonen, who played 20 games over parts of two seasons for the Rangers, and Hurricanes veteran Tuomo Ruutu. Each has scored 5 goals for the tournament, while Immonen has added a pair of assists and also scored the decisive shootout goal in a 3-2 win over Russia to close the qualifying round. Wild captain Mikko Koivu complements the Finland attack with 2 goals and 5 points. In goal, a platoon of Petri Vehanen and Teemu Lassila has gotten the job done so far, though a true No. 1 has yet to emerge. Vehanen was pulled after giving up a pair of early goals to Russia, and Lassila was brilliant in his relief effort.
Proficient goal-scoring hasn't always been a hallmark for Norwegian hockey, but it's been a banner tournament as they've qualified for the quarterfinals for just the second time since the current playoff format was adopted in 1992 -- it first happened three years ago. Norway has 22 goals to this point, its highest total at the Worlds in more than two decades, and Marius Holtet, a former second-round pick by Dallas, has been the focal point of the Norwegians’ efforts. Holtet erupted for four goals in a 5-2 win over France to complete the qualifying round and now has a tournament-leading 6 goals. Up front, Mathis Olimb has 1 goal and 9 points to lead the team in scoring, while Per-Age Skroder and Anders Bastiansen each have 3 goals and 7 points. Jonas Holos from the Colorado Avalanche has 2 goals and 5 points on the blue line. Goalie Lars Haugen has a 2.48 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
Canada vs. Russia, 2:15 p.m. ET
One of hockey's best rivalries writes another chapter. That the two superpowers are meeting this early in the tournament is a bit of a surprise – as it was at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Canada won the event in 2007 before Russia defeated the Canadians in 2008 and 2009 in the gold medal game.
Canada finished first in Group B of the preliminary round despite needing overtime to defeat Switzerland in its final contest. The Canadians also finished atop Group E in the qualifying round, defeating Sweden 3-2 in the final game to earn the top spot and a date with the Russians.
Russia finished second in Group A of the preliminary round because of a 2-0 defeat by Germany. The Russians also lost twice in the qualifying round, 3-2 to the Czech Republic and Finland to drop to fourth in Group E. Alex Ovechkin played in the two most recent games after the Capitals were eliminated from the playoffs, and was held scoreless.
John Tavares leads Canada with 5 goals and 9 points, while Jeff Skinner and Jason Spezza have 3 goals and 6 points each. James Reimer has started four of the six games, while Jonathan Bernier has been in the net for the other two. The two goalies have almost identical numbers, but Bernier started against Sweden and was sharp. Coach Ken Hitchcock said Tuesday he hasn't decided on a starter for the quarterfinal.
Sergei Zinoviev leads Russia with 4 goals, while Danis Zaripov has a team-leading 6 points. Ilya Kovalchuk has no goals but 5 assists. Evgeni Nabokov began the tournament as Russia's No. 1 goaltender, but Konstantin Barulin has replaced him because of injury. The Russian team also features NHL players Dmitry Kulikov and Fedor Tyutin and several ex-NHLers including Alexander Radulov, Maxim Afinogenov, Dmitri Kalinin and Alexei Morozov.