Elimination games begin in Olympic men's hockey

GREG BEACHAM AP Sports Writer Published:

SOCHI, Russia (AP) -- Thanks to that memorable shootout loss to the U.S., Russia must win four games in six days to bring home its first Olympic men's hockey gold medals in 22 years.

Alex Ovechkin and his teammates begin attempting this daunting task Tuesday against Norway when elimination games begin in Sochi.

Russia's fourth game of its home Olympics is the highlight of the four-game qualification schedule. The Czech Republic faces Slovakia in the renewal of a rivalry, while Switzerland has a rematch with Latvia, and tiny Slovenia goes for its second-ever Olympic victory against Austria.

The top four teams from preliminary-round play all get the day off to prepare for their quarterfinal matchups. Canada, Sweden, the U.S. and Finland have an extra day of rest, but that hasn't always been an advantage in this tense tournament.

No team that went unbeaten in group play has won an Olympic gold medal since the NHL joined the games in 1998. Every champion was forced to regroup after getting beaten early in the tournament, from the Czech Republic in 1998 to the host Canadians four years ago in Vancouver.

That history suggests the Russians have a shot, and it's impossible to write off their entertaining roster and all of its flaws. If Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk can get their offense going, the Russians are a rough matchup for anybody in Sochi -- even without a raucous home crowd roaring each time its team gets the puck over the opposing blue line.

Norway hasn't won an Olympic match since the home Lillehammer Games in 1994, and there's little reason to suspect the Russians will be in any trouble -- but it's dangerous to assume anything in the Sochi tournament.

Olympic veterans realize the tone of this 12-day event changes after the opening-round games. Although nobody is under as much pressure as the host Russians, every player realizes one mistake in the second week can destroy their nation's Olympic aspirations.

"Obviously these (elimination) games always have a bit more of a different feel, but you don't want to have to change the way you play a whole lot," Canada captain Sidney Crosby said. "I think we've been playing the right way here for three games. I think we've gotten better."

Even practice can be a hazard in Sochi, however. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Sweden's 2006 Olympic star, had a nasty collision with defenseman Erik Karlsson during practice Monday and needed a few minutes to recover. Lundqvist said he'll be fine.

Switzerland hopes to duplicate its 1-0 victory over Latvia in its tournament opener behind goalie Jonas Hiller, who has two shutouts already in Sochi.

The Czech Republic is hoping to build momentum behind 42-year-old Jaromir Jagr, the five-time Olympian with two goals already in the tournament.

And Slovenia hopes for another improbable result behind Anze Kopitar, its only NHL player. The Slovenes beat Slovakia last week for their nation's first Olympic hockey victory.