Thanks to a nearly perfect preliminary round, the U.S. earned the second seed at the Olympic men's hockey tournament in Sochi.
Led by Phil Kessel, who tops the scoring race with seven points through the first three games, the Americans have looked dominant against the lesser teams and came away with a critical shootout win over the host Russians in the biggest battle of the tournament so far.
Captain Zach Parise summed it up, via USA Today's Kevin Allen, saying, "We have a hunger to win and so far it's going our way."
But now the games come down to winning or going home. For the U.S., it's all about returning to the gold-medal game to avenge an overtime loss to Canada four years ago. Its path won't be easy with Sweden, Canada and Finland all claiming spots in the quarterfinals, and Russia is also looking to advance through the qualifying games.
For the U.S. to pave its road with gold, these are the likely battles it faces.
Most likely opponent: Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is an enigma this year, from roster selection right through to the way it played in the group stage. Despite having an NHL-laden group of forwards, the Czech Republic scored just six times in three games and now meets Slovakia in the qualifying round. The U.S. boasts an underrated defense, and the Czechs could have a hard time just getting pucks at goaltender Jonathan Quick.
The American offense should continue to be explosive, especially if Czech goaltender Ondrej Pavelec struggles. Even if the Winnipeg Jets netminder comes up with a solid game, it's hard to imagine the U.S. falling short of at least three goals considering they've averaged five per game so far.
At the other end, Quick has been up to the task in his two starts, stopping 51 of 54 shots against. The Czechs are struggling against NHL goaltenders, and Jonas Hiller and the Swiss blanked them in the preliminary round.
It all adds up to a likely U.S. victory, but there is trepidation in that the Czech Republic has the capability of an upset if players like Jaromir Jagr, Jakub Voracek and David Krejci get going, and Pavelec plays the best game of his tournament at the right time.
If they play Slovakia
Slovakia was the surprise team of the 2010 Vancouver Games, finishing fourth in the tournament. But it doesn't appear anywhere near capable of that kind of performance in Sochi, with netminders Jaroslav Halak and Peter Budaj both looking awful at times in this tournament and third-stringer Jan Laco giving the Russians all they could handle on Sunday in their final group game to create all kinds of confusion in the crease.
This one would be a warm-up for the semifinal against a much more threatening opponent.
Most likely opponent: Canada
For North America, this matchup would come too soon. It makes the preliminary game against Russia pale in comparison, and it could be the biggest obstacle the U.S. has to claiming gold—even more so than whatever the gold-medal matchup might be.
Canada was less dominant than expected in the group stage but still came away undefeated thanks to an exciting final overtime victory over Finland to claim the Group B win.
The Canadians’ leading goal scorer was defenseman Drew Doughty, and star forward Sidney Crosby struggled to find any sort of chemistry with his revolving group of linemates. Still, the Canucks are loaded with offensive ability, and with games in the elimination rounds, you can expect them to rise to the occasion.
Goaltending was solid from both Carey Price and Roberto Luongo, but Price will likely continue as the top guy until injury or poor play dictates the need for a change.
The U.S. matches up well with Canada, as it did in the gold-medal game in 2010 that came down to one final overtime play. You can toss up a coin for this one, with the difference being whether Canada’s scoring depth finally lives up to its potential and how the American defense matches up—including goaltender Jonathan Quick.
If they play Switzerland
The Swiss team’s only hope if it somehow slips past the deadly Canadians would be Anaheim Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller. Hiller didn’t allow a goal in two games during the preliminary round, and sometimes all you need in a single-game elimination tournament is one spectacular goalie performance.
Most likely opponent: Sweden
The Swedes lost Henrik Sedin before the tournament even began, and then they got the horrific news that Henrik Zetterberg’s back would keep him out of the action as well. But they still have Henrik Lundqvist, and he might be all the Henrik Sweden needs to get to the gold-medal game and give the U.S. a run for its money.
The New York Rangers goaltender has been great so far, stopping 73 of 78 shots through three games. He’s getting offensive support too, despite the injuries that have decimated Sweden’s roster. Daniel Alfredsson has been a clutch player with two goals and three points. Defenseman Erik Karlsson is an early MVP favorite thanks to three goals and five points in the preliminary round.
They were gold contenders coming into the tournament and haven’t done anything to disprove that—close call against the Swiss notwithstanding—so the U.S. has a lot of work to do to come out on top of this battle. Special teams will be huge considering the familiarity Sweden’s blueliners have with the tighter offensive zone setup on the international ice and how critical every goal and every opportunity to score will be.
Which team is the biggest obstacle in the U.S. quest for gold?
If they play Russia
The hosts lost their preliminary game against the U.S., but it took an incredible individual effort from T.J. Oshie in the shootout to make that happen.
If Russia somehow makes it to the penultimate game of this tournament, there’s no discounting the home ice environment as a factor. The U.S. will have to overcome the possible distraction of a very hostile crowd in that event.
If they play Finland
The Finns play a grinding, mistake-free game and capitalize on any errors their opponents make. They also have stellar goaltending from Boston Bruins star Tuukka Rask. They might be the least likely to scare the U.S. squad, but they may be the most cohesive opponent from the top four after the group stage and should never be taken lightly.