SOCHI, Russia -- It might be the single most dramatic day on the Olympic hockey schedule: quarterfinal day.
Four games, eight teams, the choices stark. Win and you're guaranteed two more games and the gold medal is still in sight. Lose and you and your medal dreams go home. Finished. Just like that.
The United States is expected to go back to the lineup it used in knocking off Russia in the preliminary round, a dynamite game that made a cult hero of shootout star T.J. Oshie. That means Jonathan Quick will return to the U.S. net and Max Pacioretty will rejoin fourth-liners Oshie and Paul Stastny. It looks like Dustin Brown will start with David Backes and Ryan Callahan, who head coach Dan Bylsma said Tuesday might have been as hard to play against so far as any player on the team. But if success in this tournament comes from a constant evolution, Bylsma said he wants his team to get faster in different parts of the ice, from breakouts to the transition game in the neutral zone to an aggressive forecheck.
"We've set up a lot and we've had a lot of controlled neutral zones, but we think we can play quicker. And turning that into a forecheck more aggressively than we have," Bylsma said.
Those are elements that seem to fit the personality of this team and should prove difficult for a Czech defense that isn't particularly mobile. If the U.S. can bring the same physicality that we saw in its first two games against Slovakia and Russia, life will be very difficult for a skilled but not overly physical Czech lineup.
Pavelec vs. Quick
While Ondrej Pavelec has been very good for the Czech Republic after being benched in the first game of the preliminary round, the goaltending edge in this game has to go to U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick. As was the case four years ago with Ryan Miller's seizing the moment and leading the U.S. to the gold-medal game, the confidence in Quick is palpable with Team USA.
"It kind of seemed like we just got better and better as it went [in the preliminary round]," U.S. defenseman Brooks Orpik said Tuesday. "That's the key to tournaments like this, I think. I think you kind of see guys' confidence growing and growing as you go because in a short tournament like this, confidence is huge, especially in net, and both those guys [Miller and Quick] have been great for us."
While Miller got the start in the third game against Slovenia, it was Quick who was so strong in the first two games, stopping 51 of the 54 shots he faced. He was also terrific in the shootout against Russia.
Creating a stir
So maybe a little internal friction isn't such a bad thing after all. From the get-go in Sochi there has been an unsettled buzz around the Czech Republic squad, whether it was initial roster decisions, the decision to bench Winnipeg Jets netminder Pavelec in the first game or the illness that has plagued veteran star Patrik Elias, causing him to miss the last couple of games.
Regardless, it didn't keep the Czechs from edging their neighbors and former countrymen by a 5-3 count on Tuesday night to set up a date with the U.S. in the quarterfinals. The Czechs made it interesting by nearly blowing a 4-0 lead, but Pavelec, who has stopped 72 of 78 shots he's faced in the past three games, held the fort. The Czech power play struggled prior to Tuesday's win, going 1-for-12, but it scored twice Tuesday with the man advantage and moved the puck very smartly on the PP.
"You think it was interesting? That was very tight in the third period, to be honest with you. We were up 4-0, we kind of, to be honest, we kind of stopped playing. We thought it was a sure win," Czech winger Jakub Voracek said.
Now the challenge is to turn around and play like they did in the first two periods against the U.S.
"I was saying earlier I think it's the best team in the tournament," Voracek said. "The way they're playing, they're playing great hockey. We've got to be sure we got our power play going like we did today because special team is going to be huge tomorrow.
"We've got nothing to lose. We won this one. Now the U.S. are a great team. They have a young team, a lot of great players. They can score, they're a fast team and they're playing great the whole tournament, so we have nothing to lose," added Ales Hemsky.
There is plenty of firepower in the Czech lineup, and the U.S. will have to be cognizant of not crossing the line physically. If head coach Alois Hadamczik goes with the same lineup, the top two lines will look like this: Jaromir Jagr, Tomas Plekanec and Roman Cervenka (who had two on Tuesday), and Hemsky, Milan Michalek and David Krejci. Of course, assuming what Czech head coach Alois Hadamczik is going to do hasn't been a particularly fruitful proposition of late.