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United States looks to clinch last quarterfinals berth, meets Russia

NHL.com @NHL

Despite lackluster play from the offense during most of the preliminary round, the United States is all but assured of moving on to the medal round.

Before they can consider a medal, the Americans will try to keep tournament's best offense in check when they meet Russia Tuesday in the last preliminary-round game.

The U.S. begins play in fourth place in Group A with a 1-2-1 record and three points. The only way for the Americans not to advance would be a loss to Russia, coupled with a Latvian victory over Kazakhstan in which Latvia scored enough to overcome a 16-goal differential with the Americans.

The Americans are in line to face Group A leader Finland on Wednesday in the single-elimination quarterfinals.

Goaltender Robert Esche is scheduled to make his Olympic debut for this contest.

"We have three starting goaltenders. They all start for their teams and they are relatively comparable," United States coach Peter Laviolette said. "He's played well for the Philadelphia Flyers. It's an opportunity to get him in and see what he can do. It's a chance to rest other people."

The United States suffered its second straight one-goal loss Sunday, falling to Sweden 2-1. Mike Modano's goal with 2:29 to play in the first period lifted the Americans into a 1-1 tie.

But Olympic rookie goaltender Rick DiPietro gave up a power-play goal to Mikael Samuelsson 4:22 into the third period for the winning margin.

The U.S. lost by the same score Saturday to unbeaten Slovakia, the Group B leader. Overall, the Americans have scored just nine goals - the same as the lightly regarded Latvians.

No Americans are among the top 30 in scoring. There are, however, two Latvians, one German, one Italian and one Kazakh.

"We're not finishing well, and you start to question everything," Modano said. "This team is pretty good, but it comes down to execution. Basically, we've done everything we wanted to, except put it in the net."

Putting the puck in the net is something Russia has done with ease for most of the preliminary round.

Ilya Kovalchuk scored a tournament-best four goals Sunday in a 9-2 rout of Latvia. He had just one assist in three games coming in and thinks better things are yet to come.

"I don't think we've played our best hockey yet," said Kovalchuk, who is tied for second in the NHL with 37 goals for the Atlanta Thrashers.

The offensive explosion came one day after Russia struggled to a 1-0 victory over winless Kazakhstan.

"Everybody played well," Russian general manager Pavel Bure said. "I'm happy for Ilya, but most importantly it doesn't matter who is going to score as long as we are going to win."

After dropping the opener to Slovakia 5-3, Russia has won three straight by a combined score of 15-2, and its 18 goals are one more than Finland's.

The U.S. defeated Russia 3-2 in the semifinals of the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. The Americans ended up with the silver medal and the Russians took bronze.

In 1980, the United States team - then made up of collegiate and amateur players - defeated the Soviet Union in the "Miracle on Ice" semifinals at the Lake Placid Games.

The United States went on to beat Finland for its first gold medal since the 1960 Games in Squaw Valley, Calif.

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