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U.S., Russia face different paths to the podium

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

Olympic hockey is intense by nature.
It's the biggest stage of sport and with a collection of the world's best in Sochi, it's no surprise that this edition of the tournament has yet to disappoint.

And while the real drama doesn't begin until there are bigger stakes, the preliminary round of the 2014 Olympic men's hockey tournament has been wildly entertaining, a bit unpredictable, and extremely competitive. Look no further than Slovenia, a nation competing in its first Olympic hockey tournament, and has been an aggressive, entertaining group despite having only one NHL player on its roster (Anze Kopitar).


Rather than back down and play a conservative style like lesser-talented countries have been known to do, the Slovenians have - for the most part - tried to dictate the pace and force opponents into mistakes. Their style of play has caught teams by surprise and it led to their upset of Slovakia over the weekend.

Those kinds of moments are a big part of the Olympic allure and the never-ending suspense when two countries put their best players on the same ice surface. And it's going to kick up another notch when the quarterfinal round begins today in Sochi.

The quarterfinal begins with "playoff" games, one could call them, as the lower-seeded teams play in a single elimination format for a chance to move on. The teams that advance from Tuesday's games get a date with the top four seeds on Wednesday, which will then paint a clearer picture of who's in the mix for a medal.

Team USA, led in scoring by Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel, has brought its offense to Sochi and is experiencing success because of depth at both forward and defense. U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma was the subject of some criticism early in the tournament for going with Jonathan Quick as the team's No. 1 goaltender, but Quick has repaid the faith shown by his coach and played very well for the Americans.

Next up for the United States is a Wednesday match-up against the winner of Tuesday's play-in game between the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Should the U.S. advance and Canada takes care of business in its quarterfinal game, that would set the stage for a Team USA-Canada semifinal where the winner gets the chance to play for gold.

But that's getting a little ahead of ourselves. For the time being, the U.S. is preparing for its quarterfinal game and that's where the focus lies.

And for the Russians, the road to the podium is slightly more difficult - but the "home team" won't be lacking motivation to get through to the medal round after a pair of disappointing performances in their final two preliminary round contests.

They dropped a 3-2 shootout decision to Team USA on Saturday and squeaked by Slovakia (1-0 in a shootout) the next day, raising questions from the media and adding to an already-thick layer of pressure. The good news is that Russia's goaltending has been terrific; Semyon Varlamov (two starts) and Sergei Bobrovsky (one start) have given the team every chance to win and that's the least of their concerns entering the quarterfinal.

Next up for Russia is a play-in game against Norway, a team that might not be imposing on paper but has caused some trouble for opponents in this tournament. Canada had a hard time breaking through the Norwegians' stout defensive structure and for skilled teams, that type of defense can be frustrating if the goals don't go in early.

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