The tournament is underway, the top contenders have gotten their first games in the bag and a huge portion of the focus on the Sochi Games now turns to men's hockey.
While things generally really heat up once the elimination tournament begins, there are still plenty of intriguing matchups to keep fans entertained in the interim as teams jostle for seeding. Let's take a look at the top games still on tap that you absolutely won't want to miss.
|Upcoming Hockey Schedule|
|Men||Preliminary||Friday, February 14, at 3 a.m. ET||C||Czech Republic vs. Latvia||MSNBC; NBC Sports Live Extra|
|Men||Preliminary||Friday, February 14, at 7:30 a.m. ET||C||Sweden vs. Switzerland||NBCSN; NBC Sports Live Extra|
|Men||Preliminary||Friday, February 14, at noon ET||B||Norway vs. Finland||MSNBC; NBC Sports Live Extra|
|Men||Preliminary||Friday, February 14 at noon ET||B||Canada vs. Austria||USA; NBC Sports Live Extra|
|Men||Preliminary||Saturday, February 15, at 3 a.m. ET||A||Slovakia vs. Slovenia||MSNBC; NBC Sports Live Extra|
|Men||Preliminary||Saturday, February 15, at 7:30 a.m. ET||A||United States vs. Russia||NBCSN; NBC Sports Live Extra|
|Men||Preliminary||Saturday, February 15, at noon ET||C||Sweden vs. Latvia||USA; NBC Sports Live Extra|
|Men||Preliminary||Saturday, February 15, at noon ET||C||Switzerland vs. Czech Republic||NBCSN; NBC Sports Live Extra|
|Men||Preliminary||Sunday, February 16, at 3 a.m. ET||B||Austria vs. Norway||USA: NBC Sports Live Extra|
|Men||Preliminary||Sunday, February 16, at 7:30 a.m. ET||A||Russia vs. Slovakia||USA; NBC Sports Live Extra|
|Men||Preliminary||Sunday, February 16, at 7:30 a.m. ET||A||United States vs. Slovenia||NBCSN; NBC Sports Live Extra|
|Men||Preliminary||Sunday, February 16, at noon ET||B||Canada vs. Finland||USA; NBC Sports Live Extra|
United States vs. Russia
Until we get to the playoff round, this is the big one. The 2010 silver medalists versus the hosts. Two teams with a slew of NHL talent. Natural rivals on the Olympic stage since the United States legendary upset of the Soviets in 1980.
The storylines are just so, so juicy.
The United States will be full of confidence after absolutely stomping a Slovakian team, 7-1, that was expected to be competitive in this tournament. Certainly, Slovakia goalkeeper Jaroslav Halak has had better days, but the United States was completely dominant, especially in a six-goal second period.
Russia beat Slovenia, 5-2, a less impressive performance against one of the poorer teams in this tournament. Still, five goals is five goals.
Where Russia boast some of the top attacking talent in this tournament behind Alex Ovechkin, captain Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk, the United States is a strong, balanced squad that doesn't have any glaring weaknesses.
And the Americans also don't have nearly the same pressure to perform. Just listening to Ovechkin talk about what this tournament meant to him in a press conference before Russia's first game, you could practically feel the expectations of his country:
I'm pretty sure it's probably going to be my biggest tournament. You can't compare Torino, Vancouver and Sochi. Torino was my first Olympic games. I was 19. Everything was new for me. It was crazy. In Vancouver, we played against Canada, and that was a crazy moment.
Right now, I play for my country at home, and this is another crazy moment. I'm pretty sure you can ask any Canadian guy, 'What's the biggest moment for them when they play for national team?' Of course, it's home Olympic games. It's probably biggest moment for me.
While both of these teams can still avoid the playoff qualification round even with a loss, you can bet both will be gunning for a win over a rival to set the tone for the rest of the tournament. This should be an excellent game.
Canada vs. Finland
These Group B powerhouses will meet in the final game of the preliminary round, and boy, what a way to wrap up that portion of the tournament. Sidney Crosby and company will be the favorites, of course—they're the defending gold medalists, after all—but Finland is one of the five teams that seems capable of winning this tournament.
Oh, and the Finns have medaled in four of the last five Olympics in men's hockey. They are not to be taken lightly.
Of course, an 8-4 win over Austria to start the tournament was a bit of a surprise. After all, the Finns are loaded at goalie, though Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins gave up four goals on just 20 shots against the Austrians.
Not the start he would want, especially for a Finnish team that will need to rely on strong goalkeeping after Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula, two very key players for the team, couldn't make the trip to Sochi due to injuries.
Canada should be able to dictate their style in this game, but a dynamic performance from Rask—or either Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi, should Rask be benched—could push the Finns past the more talented Canadians.
And of course after the Russians, the Canadians face the most pressure, both as defending champions and because hockey is essentially the national pastime of their country. Their coach, Mike Babcock, talked about the pressure to TSN:
You feel pressure because it's the pressure you put on yourselves to perform. We take our job seriously. We like to brag as a nation that we are the best in the world in hockey, but you cant just brag, (you) need to win and back it up.
Beating a strong Finland side would be an indication that the Canadians are ready to handle that pressure, much as they did four years ago.
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