The last day of the Olympic hockey preliminary round on Sunday featured rematches of the last three goal-medal contests. But today’s slate of games is even better: Without any qualification round surprises yesterday, the eight best teams in the world are in action today — four single-elimination matches that will send some of the best players on the planet home without a medal. After the jump, a look at each of the games.
United States vs. Switzerland, 3 p.m.
Switzerland’s easily the weakest team remaining in this tournament — they needed a shootout just to beat Belarus to advance this far — but they also took Canada to a shootout, and gave the Americans trouble for stretches of their preliminary-round contest. (Ideally, since their strengths are on defense and in goal, they’ll want to keep this a low-scoring affair.) For the Americans, facing the Swiss means going from David to Goliath in the span of three days. Switzerland is the only team left that can pull off a truly shocking upset, and the Americans can’t slip under the radar anymore: Sunday’s win was the most-watched hockey game on American television since 2002. (It just missed topping election night 2008 for the most-watched broadcast in MSNBC’s history.) When Ryan Seacrest is interested in interviewing your goalie, you’ve reached a whole new level of celebrity. That said, the Americans earned this matchup, and we’d be surprised if they didn’t take advantage of it.
Russia vs. Canada, 7:30 p.m.
The dream matchup, two rounds too early. For the Canadians, losing and ending their run without even playing for a medal on home ice would destroy the psyche of an entire nation. Seriously, Mike Babcock’s citizenship is getting revoked if they lose this game. And losing this game is a distinct possibility: They’re facing arguably the most talented team in the tournament, and we’re not sure beating up on a weak German squad qualifies as “righting the ship.” But benching Martin Brodeur for Roberto Luongo is a step in the right direction, not just in terms of goal-tending at right this very moment, but as an opportunity to hit the reset button and start over. It’s worth noting, though, that Russia’s power play — which should have been its most dangerous weapon — has inexplicably turned into a liability: They’re just 2–16 with the man advantage in this tournament.
Finland vs. Czech Republic, 10 p.m.
Through much of their qualifying game last night, Latvia hung tough with the Czechs but had nothing to show for it. But then two third-period goals sent the game to overtime, and got us all thisclose to the biggest upset of the tournament. (Sorry, Team USA fans, but it would have been.) David Krejci would eventually win the game in overtime for the Czechs, but being exposed as vulnerable would prove to be the least of their worries. Jaromir Jagr missed much of the game with an “upper body injury,” and his status is uncertain for tonight’s game. Czech coach Vladimir Ruzicka said he expects him to play, but said he was “unsure how long he will last in the game.” Finland, meanwhile, is the toughest team left to gauge: They won twice in the preliminary round, but did so in the weakest group. In their one difficult matchup, Sweden shut them out 3–0.
Sweden vs. Slovakia, midnight
Slovakia, like the Czechs, didn’t have an easy go of it last night: They scored the go-ahead goal to knock of Norway with 8:41 remaining in the third period, and goalie Jaroslav Halak allowed three goals on just nineteen shots. Sweden, meanwhile, looked as good as anyone in the first round; they just didn’t have a chance to play a team as good as Canada to prove it. Olympic superstar Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t allowed a goal thus far, and thanks to the bye and a game off in the preliminary round, he’s gotten some valuable rest. (He’d appeared in 54 NHL games before the break, good for fourth most in the league.) Rangers fans staying up late for this one should just root for Lundqvist and Slovakia’s Marian Gaborik to emerge in one piece, because to say they’re the two most valuable players on the team — the one that resumes NHL play next week — is an understatement.