After a shootout loss to the U.S. and a shootout win over Slovakia last weekend, the road to a potential gold medal was not going to be easy for Russia.
The host nation rightfully had high expectations for its Olympic hockey team entering the Sochi Games and there's still a legitimate chance for gold, but the Russians have a few more hurdles to clear before it becomes a reality.
Step one was a qualification playoff game today against the pesky Norwegians, and it was no small task for Russia.
Norway, like many of the lesser-skilled teams in international competitions, relied on its tight-checking and trapping style to slow down Russia's attack in the first period. This game was - to the surprise of many - scoreless after 20 minutes, which generated some unrest both inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome and around the country.
2014 SOCHI CENTRAL ON BLUEJACKETS.COM
But the Russians finally broke through in the second period on a goal by Alexander Radulov, who was publicly chastised by head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov for a poor performance in the preliminary round game against the U.S.
It was the first of two goals (including an empty netter late in the third period) for Radulov, who has ridden quite the roller coaster during this Olympic tournament. Ilya Kovalchuk - remember him? - also scored during regulation for Russia to seal a 4-0 victory.
Sergei Bobrovsky got the call between the pipes for Russia and turned in another solid performance. A few days after being the tough-luck loser against Team USA, Bobrovsky kept a clean sheet and made 22 saves to record his first shutout of the Olympics.
Next up for Russia? A quarterfinal match-up against Finland tomorrow afternoon. It's important to remember that the Finns, as physical and competitive a national team as you'll find, gave Canada everything it could handle on Sunday in the final preliminary round game.
In the afternoon qualification games, the Latvians scored a significant upset over Switzerland, a team with strong aspirations following its 2010 Olympic run and a second-place finish in the 2013 World Championship. Latvia moves on to face Canada tomorrow at 12 p.m. ET, and in the other playoff, the Czechs nearly let a four-goal lead slip away.
This has been an up-and-down tournament for the Czechs, but today's win over Slovakia was a definite highlight. They built a 4-0 lead in the second period but went into cruise control a tad early, and three goals from the Slovaks (a rally started by Marian Hossa late in the second period) made this a white-knuckler down the stretch.
So the match-ups are set for Wednesday: Team USA plays the Czech Republic, Russia faces Finland, Sweden takes on Slovenia and Canada is paired up against Latvia. Should be a blast.