<
>

A look at the men's quarterfinals

It is regarded as the scariest day of the Olympic hockey tournament -- quarterfinals day.

Win, and the gold-medal dream lives.

Lose, and it's over. No more games. No medals. Nothing.

"Skill and power don't mean anything. You need heart and you need everyone on the team believing that they can win," said Russian forward Alexei Kovalev.

And as though the pressure to advance wasn't enough, how about the matchups. Canada will play long-time international rival Russia; the Swedes, amid calls that they tanked their last game against Slovakia so they could draw the Swiss, will face Switzerland; the undefeated Slovaks will take on the Czech Republic and the struggling Americans take on the undefeated Finns.

"We all know that emotional control is probably a bigger part than actual skill when it comes to games like this," Canadian coach Pat Quinn said. "I'm not sure where we are, as a group right here. We're going to find out obviously."

With the four quarterfinal matches all set for Wednesday, by the end of the day at least three teams that had legitimate medal hopes will be going home empty-handed. Here's a breakdown.

Game 1 (10:35 a.m. ET): Sweden (3-2) vs. Switzerland (2-1-2)

So the Swedes, by virtue of their 3-0 loss to Slovakia on Tuesday, got the matchup they wanted against the surprising Swiss. Now, if there are gods of hockey, the Swiss will make them pay. It's not likely to happen, but anything is possible, and this is after all the Swedish team that spit the bit against lowly Belarus in Salt Lake City in 2002.

The Swedes haven't really hit their stride yet, in part, because Peter Forsberg hasn't been fully assimilated into the lineup. He'll play a prominent role Wednesday.

Strengths: The Swiss have been successful in this tournament because they have received all-world goaltending from Martin Gerber and David Aebischer. Aebischer started Tuesday so it's a good bet Carolina Hurricanes netminder Martin Gerber will start against Sweden. The two netminders and part-time Montreal defenseman Mark Streit are the only NHLers on the squad. But led by gritty former NHLer Paul DiPietro, the Swiss have played a tough, in-your-face style that opponents have found difficult to combat. They do not get caught out of position and will not be intimidated by the Swedes' physicality.

The Swedes are clearly missing Markus Naslund, who stayed home with an injury, but they are still a talented unit led by Daniel Alfredsson, Mats Sundin and Nik Lidstrom. If, as he claims he is, Forsberg is healthy, he dramatically changes the Swedish attack. His presence on the power play will be a key. Henrik Lundqvist was dynamite against the U.S. in a 2-1 win, shaking off an iffy performance in a 5-0 loss to Russia. The Swedes have been dominant in the faceoff circle with Henrik Sedin, Mats Sundin and Samuel Pahlsson leading the tournament in efficiency.

Weaknesses: The Swiss simply do not have the offensive talent to stay with the Swedes if they fall behind. They will also struggle to score at even strength against a Swedish team that plays a more physical NHL style. The Swedes, meanwhile, have only defeated one quality opponent, the Americans, and are struggling offensively, having been shut out twice. Alfredsson is the team's top scorer and he has only five points. Will the accusations that they tanked the game against Slovakia play on their minds?

Why the Swiss win: If they get on the Swedes early, they will gain a huge emotional advantage. Gerber (or Aebischer) must continue to be rock solid. The Swiss power play must chip in a goal or two.

Why the Swedes win: If the Swedes even bring their 'B' game and get decent goaltending from Lundqvist, they should win. If they can force the Swiss to take penalties, their power play should make the difference.

Prediction: The Swiss dream ends. Sweden 5, Switzerland 1.

Game 2 (11:35 a.m.): United States (1-3-1) vs. Finland (5-0)

In theory, this isn't a bad matchup for the Americans because Finland is traditionally a hard-working team that isn't likely to light it up offensively. Except in this tournament, the Finns have been virtually flawless. In five games, they have given up exactly two goals, both in a 4-2 victory over the Czechs. Finnish reporters say this team is playing as well as any Finnish team has played in the past decade. Most of the Finnish team are NHLers, said Teemu Selanne. "They eat the same food, drink the same beer. They're not better than us."

The Americans, meanwhile, have lost three straight games, but have shown a terrific work ethic and never-say-die mentality. In a move designed to give Rick DiPietro some rest after two strong performances, the U.S. went to third netminder Robert Esche in their wild 5-4 loss to the Russians on Tuesday night. "We found the net tonight and I think that allowed us to put some spark back in our play," said U.S. defenseman Derian Hatcher.

Strengths: The Finns had a team meeting at the start of the tournament to talk about putting the distractions of defections and injuries behind them, and their mental toughness has shown in their perfect record. They don't allow many shots. Antero Niittymaki has been solid and should be rested as Fredrik Norrena played in Tuesday's 2-0 shutout of Germany. Up front, Selanne is playing like a man possessed and leads the team with six goals, while Saku Koivu leads the tournament with 11 points. The Finns have started games with excellent energy, as witnessed in their 2-0 win over Canada. They also have the most efficient power play in the tournament.

The Americans have played better defensively than expected and DiPietro was terrific in 2-1 losses to Slovakia and Sweden. Brian Rolston and his big shot are enjoying a productive tournament and Jason Blake has helped raise the Americans' energy level. In spite of the losses, the Americans never quit working, coming back from a 3-1 deficit Tuesday before falling 5-4 on a late goal.

Weaknesses: The Finns have shown little in the way of deficiencies thus far, but they are not a team that will want to open it up, so they could be in trouble if they get behind early. There are also questions about whether Niittymaki, who is only on the team because Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen declined, can handle the pressure now that it's one and done.

The Americans have struggled offensively from the start of the tournament, but they did break out against the Russians. The depth that was supposed to be this team's strength has simply not materialized in key situations. Although they have generated chances, there has been an alarming lack of finish.

Why the U.S. wins: If DiPietro is in a zone, and he has been, he can be the difference. The Americans will also have to get on the Finns early. The U.S. has given up the first goal in the last three games and lost all of them. Keeping the Finns off the power play will be critical, as will be establishing the vigorous forecheck that has been present for much of the tournament.

Why the Finns win: If Niittymaki can continue his strong performance, the Finns are simply the better team right now. Their best players, Koivu, Selanne and Jere Lehtinen, are playing better than the Americans' best players. Their power play is dominant and their confidence is at an all-time high.

Prediction: The Americans pull off the upset. U.S. 3, Finland 2.

Game 3 (2:35 p.m.): Canada (3-2) vs. Russia (4-1)

It doesn't get much better than this, does it? The last time Canada and Russia faced each other in Olympic play was back in 1992, when the former Soviet Union won a gold medal as the Unified Team. Although Canada has yet to perform like the defending gold medalist, it has 19 players in the room who were either in Salt Lake City in 2002 or part of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey championship squad.

"We've had guys that have been there before," coach Pat Quinn said. "It doesn't guarantee that we're going to be fine and not … get too tight."

The Russians have shaken off an opening-night loss to Slovakia to win four straight and have done so in dynamic fashion as 12 players have scored at least one goal. They have also received stellar netminding from former NHL rookie of the year Evgeni Nabokov. Most important, the lack of cohesion that has marked Russian entries in these kinds of tournaments in recent years is not in evidence here in Italy.

"I know every time these countries meet, it is a battle and it will be war," Russian forward Viktor Kozlov said. "That is the way it has been in the past, and I do not expect anything different."

Strengths: Canada still has the most balanced team in the tournament, even if it haven't yet played to its potential. Martin Brodeur showed in Tuesday's 3-2 win over the Czech Republic why he gives the Canadians the best goaltending in the tournament, stopping 31 of 33 shots. The presence of leaders like captain Joe Sakic, Chris Pronger, Rob Blake and Jarome Iginla should ensure that the team shakes off its early-tournament malaise and is ready for the most important part of the tournament.

The Russians have offensive firepower that no other team can match, starting with Alexander Ovechkin, who scored his fourth goal of the tournament in Tuesday's 5-4 win over the United States. Ilya Kovalchuk had a four-goal night against Latvia, while Pavel Datsyuk has been the team's best player. Nabokov gives the Russians steady goaltending, which helps a blue line that lacks depth.

Weaknesses: The Canadians continue to struggle offensively. Although they pumped three goals past Tomas Vokoun in the first period Tuesday, they did not generate much after that. In all, the Canadians have scored just three times in the past three games. Bryan McCabe, expected to help the Canadian power play in the absence of Scott Niedermayer, has looked overwhelmed. Of the elite teams in the tournament, Canada is the most penalized. Top players like Joe Thornton, Todd Bertuzzi and Simon Gagne have not yet produced.

The Russian blue line cannot match the Canadians in terms of depth or size and can be prone to running around. The Russians gave up three power-play goals to the U.S. on Tuesday, but they had previously been solid, ranking second in the tournament.

Why Canada wins: If they can pressure the Russian defense with the forecheck, they will create turnovers and draw penalties. Brodeur is always difficult to beat and gives the Canadian defense the latitude to join the rush and contribute offensively.

Why Russia wins: The Russians' speed and skill up front has the potential to force the Canadians into a more defensive posture and costly penalties. If Nabokov is on his game, he will match Brodeur stop for stop.

Prediction: Canada wins a wild one. Canada 4, Russia 3.

Game 4 (3:35 p.m.): Slovakia (5-0) vs. Czech Republic (2-3)

This is a game sure to be electric with emotion. For the Slovaks, this tournament has been about redeeming themselves after the debacle of not qualifying for the Salt Lake City Games. The Slovaks have been efficient and poised throughout the tournament, and they have been the recipient of surprisingly good goaltending from Peter Budaj. "The tournament starts now," said Peter Bondra, who scored his fourth goal of the tournament in the Slovaks' 3-0 win over Sweden on Tuesday. "You can't calculate anymore and you can't choose your opponent. We hope to play the best game ever in Slovakian hockey history and we'll write history tomorrow."

The Czechs, meanwhile, have struggled to get their game in gear in part because of the loss of Dominik Hasek and Patrik Elias, both of whom were lost for the tournament in the Czechs' first game. Tomas Vokoun, one of the NHL's top netminders, has been inconsistent and was pulled after the first period of Tuesday's loss to Canada. "My play, obviously you can't be happy. That's hockey. Sometimes you just want to play well and you don't," Vokoun said. "For me, today is Tuesday, tomorrow is Wednesday."

Strengths: The Slovaks have terrific firepower in the form of Marian Gaborik, who scored two timely goals against the Russians to earn a victory, Pavol Demitra and Miroslav Satan. But it is Marian Hossa who is driving the Slovak bus with his terrific play. He had a goal and an assist Tuesday and leads the team with nine points. Zdeno Chara has been helped out on the back end by Radoslav Suchy, and Lubomir Visnovsky and the defensive unit has not allowed the scoring chances that might have been anticipated at the beginning of the tournament.

The Czechs also have tremendous offensive depth, starting with NHL scoring leader Jaromir Jagr, who seems to have recovered from the nasty hit he took from Jarkko Ruutu early in the preliminary round. Skilled puck-moving defensemen Tomas Kaberle and Marek Zidlicky give the Czechs great fast-break potential, but Zidlicky did not play against Canada.

Weaknesses: Who would have thought that going into the quarters that goaltending would be a bigger question mark for the Czechs rather than Slovakia? But Vokoun has struggled at times since Hasek's departure early in the tournament. The Czech defense can also be rattled by physical play. The undefeated Slovaks have shown few flaws, but the blue-line corps remains a chink in the armor because of its lack of depth.

Why the Slovaks win: Emotionally, the Slovaks should have a huge edge on the Czechs, and scoring first would be a big step toward vanquishing their opponent. Budaj will have to quiet the inevitable nerves he'll feel in what will be the most important game of his career.

Why the Czechs win: There is still a mystique surrounding the Czech Republic and no one knows that better than Slovakia. An early Czech goal might deflate the Slovaks. Likewise, some big stops early on by Vokoun will elevate both his confidence and the confidence of his teammates.

Prediction: Slovaks on a roll. Slovakia 4, Czech Republic 2.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.