Host Russia plays for its Olympic life when it faces Norway in the first elimination round. (Kyodo/AP)
By Allan Muir
And now the real games begin.
With the preliminary round of the Olympic hockey tournament in the books, eight teams now face qualifying play-ins on Tuesday. Each winner will then advance to play one of the top-four seeds – Sweden, the United States, Canada and Finland – in the quarterfinal round on Wednesday. The losers can pack their bags and collect their participant ribbons on the way home.
Here's a look at the key talking points for each game, along with where you can catch the action on TV:
Russia (5) vs. Norway (12) 7:30 a.m. ET (NBCSN, CBC)
At stake: The winner plays No. 4 Finland at 7:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday.
The Set-up: Did the weight of expectations get to the host team? Maybe. The Russians came up small in the preliminaries, twice being forced to the shootout by teams they could have handled in regulation. Their surprisingly sturdy defense has rebuffed all the pre-tournament worries, helping Semyon Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky limit opponents to four goals through three games, but now there are real concerns about the offense.
While the top six forwards have been consistently involved, the bottom six seem overmatched, chipping in just three points and rarely establishing any sort of attack zone presence. That lack of depth could be the difference against Canada or the U.S. Russia's power play is another issue, with just two goals on 13 chances. It's too cute by half, always looking for the alley-oop instead of the direct line to the net. The Russians won't need success with the extra man to beat the Norwegians, but finding some rhythm on special teams could be critical in the quarters.
Norway hasn't won an Olympic match since hosting the 1994 Games in Lillehammer. It won't pull out of that skid on Tuesday. With just one goal in each of the first three games, the Norwegians don't have the firepower to keep pace with Team Russia.
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Switzerland (6) vs. Latvia (11), noon ET (MSNBC, CBC)
At stake: The winner meets No. 3 Canada at noon ET on Wednesday.
The Set-Up: This rematch of the tourney opener -- which ended when Simon Moser broke a scoreless tie with just 7.9 seconds left -- could be a good one. Just don't expect a lot of scoring.
Except for the timely game-winner in the opener, the Swiss can't put the puck in the net, scoring just two goals through the first three games. But with goalie Jonas Hiller pitching a pair of shutouts, Switzerland's offense didn't need do much in the preliminary round. The team's defensive prowess sets them up as a nasty opponent in the elimination round. The Swiss allow possession, but they also don't allow scoring chances inside. By forcing shots from the wings, they are playing to Hiller's strengths -- his size and experience playing the international angles makes him tough to beat.
That said, the Swiss are not leaving themselves any margin for error. Don't look for them to open it up offensively, but knowing their keeper can cover up for the occasional mistake means they might take a few chances. They need to develop some confidence in their scoring if they hope to advance past this round.
Latvia is likely to go back to veteran goaltender Edgars Masalskis, who stopped 38 shots in the opener. He'll have to be just as good this time around -- at least.
Czech Republic (7) vs. Slovakia (10) at noon ET (NBCSN, CBC)
At stake: The winner faces No. 2 Team USA at noon ET on Wednesday.
The Set-up: With two pieces of the former Czechoslovakia facing off, this could be the game of the day. The Slovakians have been the Monuments Men of this tournament, a team that has wildly under-delivered -- losing all three group-stage games -- despite a star-laden cast. The Slovakians embarrassed themselves with a series of defensive blunders in a 7-1 loss to the U.S., and then stumbled against a Slovenian team they should have easily knocked off before taking the Russians to a shootout in the finale.
Does that last result give reason to believe that Slovakia has discovered its game in the nick of time, or did it simply take advantage of an another underwhelming team? KHL backup Jan Laco is likely to get the start in goal against the Czechs, with Blues starter Jaroslav Halak struggling mightily in his two appearances. Defenseman Zdeno Chara had a light workload through three games, averaging just 23 minutes a game and playing less often than partner Andrej Sekera. With national pride on the line, the Slovaks will likely ride him heavily.
The Czechs probably exceeded expectations in the first three games, earning a win over Latvia and sticking close to the Swiss and the Swedes despite the curious machinations of coach Alois Hadamczik. The Czech Republic looks set in goal, with Ondrej Pavelec delivering a strong performance in the group-stage finale, but the offense is stuck in neutral, especially with the extra man (the Czechs have scored on just one of 12 power plays).
Jaromir Jagr has a pair of goals, but David Krejci has just one shot after leading the Stanley Cup playoffs in scoring two of the past three seasons. It might help if his wingers earned some space down low -- Krejci is an ace at exploiting even the smallest of openings. Patrik Elias could be back in the lineup after missing the last game.
Slovenia (8) vs. Austria (9) at 3 a.m. ET (NBCSN, CBC)
At stake: The winner gets No. 1 seed Sweden at 3 a.m. ET on Wednesday.
The Set-up: Little was expected of these second-tier powers in Sochi, but one will move on to a quarterfinal berth that puts them one win away from competing for a medal. Unlikely, sure, but in a one-loss elimination event, anything can happen.
The Austrians are led, surprisingly, by Michael Grabner, the tournament's top scorer with five goals. Goalie Mathias Lange made 34 saves in a 3-1 win over Norway on Sunday. He should get the start.
Slovenia came to Sochi ranked 17th in the world by the IIHF, the lowest in the Olympic tournament. Their upset win over Slovakia, coupled with competitive games against Russia and the U.S., ensure that no matter what the outcome on Wednesday, the team will regard this Olympics as a wild success.
Good thing, because Slovenia might be shorthanded against Austria. Anze Kopitar
, the team's lone NHL player, left midway through Sunday's game with some sort of stomach ailment. His coach (and father) Matjaz Kopitar said after the game that he's not sure of his son's availability. Without Kopitar, Slovenia will be hard-pressed to keep pace with the up-tempo Austrians.