SOCHI -- The 2014 Sochi Olympics were barely more than 24 minutes old for the Czech Republic players and they were already down four goals to Sweden.
After beating undermanned Latvia in underwhelming fashion, the Czechs failed to score against Switzerland, landing in third place in Group C and looking like a dysfunctional group.
A strong start proved decisive Tuesday against rival Slovakia and, despite some nervy moments near the end, the Czechs are suddenly one game from playing for a medal.
Roman Cervenka scored a pair of goals to help the Czech Republic defeat Slovakia 5-3 to set up a date Wednesday with the United States in the quarterfinals (noon ET, USA, TSN2).
"We talked before the game with the guys and we wanted to have a better start than we had in the previous three games," Montreal Canadiens center Tomas Plekanec said. "It was our weakest part, the starts of the games. I thought we did a good job on that, but after that it was the opposite. Now we have to have a meeting about the second half."
The Slovaks got within a goal after falling behind 4-0 to start the game, but a slashing penalty to prevent a 2-on-1 in the final minute and an empty-net goal from Plekanec ended any doubt.
If the tournament has been a struggle for the Czechs, it proved to be something worse for their neighbors to the southeast. Slovakia failed to win a game in four tries in Sochi.
This is the first time that's ever happened for any of the countries commonly referred to as the "big seven." Slovakia has competed in six straight tournaments dating back to the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. Never blessed with a deep roster, the Slovaks missed injured Columbus Blue Jackets forward Marian Gaborik, and scored five goals in the four contests.
"That's the million dollar question, it's tough to say," Slovakia captain Zdeno Chara said when asked what went wrong. "We had a rough game the first game against the U.S. That game kind of put us really down mentally, our confidence was not there. But we bounced back against Russia and played our strongest game of this tournament. We thought we would follow up on that game [Tuesday] night and obviously we didn't. It's a big disappointment and we'll have to look back and figure out what went wrong."
The Czechs were the aggressors at the start and dominated much of the first period. A pair of goals 29 seconds apart put them in control.
Ales Hemsky snapped home a shot from the slot at 6:53 for his first goal of the tournament. The Edmonton Oilers forward began these Olympics as the extra man up front for the Czechs, but he's become a fixture on the second line in short order.
Plekanec banged a shot off the post seconds later, and Cervenka was there to put in the rebound at 7:22. Cervenka had nine goals and 17 points last season for the Calgary Flames before returning to the Kontinental Hockey League.
David Krejci added a second power-play goal for the Czechs to forge a three-goal lead. Ex-NHL defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who had two assists, sent a pass to Krejci for a one-timer from the left circle, and the Boston Bruins center ripped it into the top-left corner at 17:03.
Slovakia played better at the onset of the second period, but was unable to cut into the lead. Cervenka added his second goal of the game at 15:41 of the second. He stripped the puck from an unsuspecting Andrej Sekera near the Slovak blue line and patiently waited out goaltender Jan Laco before flicking a backhanded shot from a tight angle just inside the post.
Laco, a backup to ex-NHL goaltender Michael Leighton in the KHL, had 36 saves in a 1-0 shootout loss to Russia in the last group game and was given the start ahead of St. Louis Blues netminder Jaroslav Halak, but he was unable to conjure similar magic two days later.
Marian Hossa did get the lead back down to three goals at 18:57 of the second. His Chicago Blackhawks teammate, Michal Handzus, carried the puck behind the net before backhanding a pass to Hossa.
It was Hossa's first goal of the tournament, and he added his second at 7:20 of the third to make it 4-2. Winnipeg Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec stopped Tomas Tatar's whirling backhanded shot from the left wing, but Hossa hammered the rebound past him.
Slovakia kept the pressure on, and it became a one-goal game 91 seconds later. Forward Tomas Surovy scored on a one-timer in transition from the high slot and Czech Republic coach Alois Hadamczik called timeout to regroup.
"We just stopped playing," Pavelec said. "We didn't play smart at all and gave them too many chances and too much space. At the end of the game we were lucky they didn't tie the game. … Good game for fans, fun to watch, not fun for us."
New Jersey Devils forward Patrik Elias did not play for the second straight game because of illness, and Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival confirmed Elias is not alone on the team in dealing with the bug.
"There's a couple of guys who weren't feeling really good," Rozsival said. "Obviously Patrik Elias went down hard. A couple of other guys didn't feel well. But it's the Olympics, so everybody's trying to do their best to battle through it. Nothing really serious."
The Czech Republic is now 4-0-0 against Slovakia in the Olympics, and 13-3-1 including games in the IIHF World Championships. The Slovaks did win the last meeting in the 2012 IIHF World Championship, but will be left to wonder where the future of the national team is headed with its top stars on the back half of their NHL careers.
For the Czechs, their future is back in this building in less than 24 hours to face a United States team that waxed Slovakia 7-1 and has scored 14 times in three games.
"I'm not putting myself down, but if we played best-of-seven I don't like my chances," Krejci said. "But best-of-one? We're going to try to score the first goal and leave everything out there because we don't have to save ourselves for anything. Just go out there, play the game and we'll see what happens."
SVK 0 1 2 - 3
CZE 3 1 1 - 5
1. CZE, Hemsky (Kaberle, Voracek) 6:53
2. CZE, Cervenka (Jagr, Plekanec) 7:22
3. CZE, Krejci (Kaberle) 17:03
Penalties - Marincin SVK (slashing) 6:38, Jagr CZE (tripping) 6:16, Jurco SVK (slashing) 15:18.
4. CZE, Cervenka (unassisted) 15:41
5. SVK, Hossa (Handzus, Sekera) 18:57
Penalties - Hossa SVK (hooking) 3:42, Chara SVK (tripping) 6:34.
6. SVK, Hossa (Handzus, Tatar) 7:20
7. SVK, Surovy (Bartovic, Sekera) 8:51
8. CZE, Plekanec (Krejci, Zidlicky) 19:21
Penalties - Mezsaros SVK (slashing) 19:07.
SHOTS ON GOAL
SVK 7 10 15 - 32
CZE 13 8 8 - 29
Goaltenders (saves-shots against) - SVK: Laco (L, 24-28); CZE: Pavelec (W, 29-32).
Power plays (goals-chances) - SVK: 0-1; CZE: 3-5