TORINO, Italy -- One day into the Olympic hockey tournament and the Americans already face a do-or-die situation.
After a disappointing 3-3 tie with little-regarded Latvia on Wednesday night, in which the U.S. blew a 2-0 lead and had to scramble back to even the game in the third period, it faces a must-win situation against another inferior opponent Thursday in Kazakhstan.
"We need to win a hockey game tomorrow night. When that game's over, we need to win the next one, and hopefully get better as a team and play with more energy than we did tonight," U.S. coach Peter Laviolette said. "Absolutely, we needed to win tonight. With that comes more urgency I guess as the tournament moves on."
In spite of a game that ultimately ended in such an unsatisfactory manner, there were actually many positive elements.
After having just one workout together, the Americans pressured the Latvians with intense forechecking, which led to a series of power plays and, in turn, yielded a 2-0 lead by the mid-point of the first period.
In the third period, the Americans dominated the last half, hemming Latvia in its own end and forcing former NHLer Arturs Irbe, who now toils for Salzburg of the Austrian league, into an array of sparkling saves to preserve the tie.
The Americans out-shot Latvia 19-6 in the third and also imposed a much more physical presence late in the game with heavy hits delivered by Erik Cole, Craig Conroy and some intense forechecking work by Jason Blake.
But it was the middle frame that cost the Americans what could turn out to be a vital point in the five-game round robin.
Latvia scored twice in a 40-second span in the second to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead that had the drum-banging, pro-Latvian crowd at Palasport Olimpico dancing in the aisles.
Although Laviolette refused to use the jet-lag and compressed travel schedule as an excuse (some players were delayed coming over from North American due to a snowstorm), it appeared the Americans hit the wall for the entire second frame.
"We seemed to lose our jam a little bit in mid-game there," Laviolette said. "Tomorrow we'll wake up. Every day, we're going to feel a little bit better. Every day, we're going to be a little more adjusted and hopefully a little bit sharper with our game. But it was a game we needed to be successful in and we weren't."
Now comes the interesting part for the Americans.
Not many hockey pundits expected this U.S. team to compete for a medal in Torino. And certainly, those skeptics were rewarded with Wednesday's surprising tie against a Latvian team that boasts just two current NHLers, Karlis Skrastins of Colorado and Sandis Ozolinsh of Anaheim.
Ozolinsh was playing in his first game after being released to the after-care portion of the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program.
Now, it's time to determine if the Americans have the character and confidence they insist they possess or whether they really don't belong among the tournament's elite teams.
"The naysayers, they had their way tonight. And they can point the finger like, 'I told you so.' But that being said, it's not a long tournament, but there's still a lot of hockey to be played," said Philadelphia Flyers forward Mike Knuble. "You don't have a lot of time to get it together so it better be now, you'd better have your stuff together by the next game.
"That's the good thing, we get to go play again tomorrow while everything's fresh in our mind. It's probably a little bit of a wake-up call for us, and to get it the first game is great for us."
The tie against Latvia will only become relevant if the Americans cannot out-point Latvia over the next four games of the round robin and finish in the top four to advance to the quarterfinal round.
That is why a win over Kazakhstan on Thursday is so crucial -- for starters.
The Kazakhs are coming off a desultory 7-2 loss to Sweden, so the schedule benefits an American team that is in desperate need of some positive karma.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. players insisted this was not a setback, but simply a stepping stone.
"You look around our room, I don't think there's a lack of confidence anywhere in our room, top to bottom, that's for sure," said Colorado defenseman John-Michael Liles, who assisted on the first goal of the game, a power-play marker by Brian Gionta. "Jumping off a plane yesterday, you get one practice together and you know we generated quite a few chances, and our goal is to improve every day and keep moving on."
By the end of the day Thursday, the Americans will know whether they are indeed moving forward or just bystanders.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.