With the preliminary round over and the teams all seeded for the single elimination tournament, the games that count begin and we get to see how the various coaches really feel about the Tampa Bay Lightning players on their respective rosters based on how they're used now when the games matter.
Slovenia (4) vs. Austria (0)
At what point do we stop calling Slovenia an underdog?
One of the smallest nations in the men's hockey tournament was near-dominant versus a listless Austria, who has relied almost entirely on Michael Grabner for their offensive output. Grabner had 5 of the 7 total goals Austria has scored in Sochi heading into this match-up with Slovenia, who was coming off their first ever win at an Olympic games over Slovakia.
The Slovenian's played a smart, simple, effective game, getting goals on the powerplay (Anze Kopitar), shorthanded (Jan Urbas) and at 5v5 (Sabahudin Kovacevic) to jump out to a 3-0 lead, surprising Austria, who had a few good chances of their own but couldn't find a way to get one past goaltender Robert Kristan. Slovenia went on to win 4-0 and will face Sweden next in the quarterfinals.
Russia (4) vs. Norway (0)
After going to the shootout vs. both USA and Slovakia, Russia missed out on a bye into the quarterfinals, but drew the lowest seed in the tournament in Norway for their qualifying match.
Russia, whose top-6 forward group may be the most skilled in this tournament, was too much offensively for Norway to handle. The host nation controlled the puck for most of the game, and got three goals from their top group -- two from Alex Radulov, one from Ilya Kovalchuk -- as they glided past Norway with ease and into a quarterfinal match with the banged up Finns.
Czech Republic (5) vs. Slovakia (3)
The only game to feature any active Lightning players was one of the most interesting of the day, as the two nations that formed the nation formerly known as Czechoslovakia met to determine who would advance and play USA.
This game was all Czech Republic early, as the Slovaks started slow similarly to how they did vs. USA. The Czechs dominated puck possession early and for most of the first two periods of the game, methodically building a 4-1 lead that looked insurmountable for the sluggish Slovaks. That lead included a power play goal by Ales Hemsky skating with David Krejci and Jakub Voracek, the line where Ondrej Palat started the tournament. Palat has since been demoted down to the fourth line for the Czechs, where he skated mostly with Petr Nedved in this match vs. Slovakia.
Hemsky's goal was followed up by a brilliant breakaway tally by Roman Cervenka, who deked laterally and parallel to the goal before lifting a seemingly impossible backhander top shelf past Jan Laco to extend the lead to 2-0. The Krejci line then connected again on the power play and the Czechs looked in firmly in control and ready to cruise into the next round.
As is often the case, however, the team that looked dead in the water suddenly came roaring to life as the Czechs started to pack it in and play safe and conservatively, understanding that the winner would have to play again tomorrow against a rested USA squad that has at times looked like the best hockey team in the tournament. That opened the door just enough for Slovakia to make things interesting, led by their best player -- Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa, who took over and started to chip away at the lead by himself.
Hossa scored a pair of goals himself, followed by another from Slovakia from Tomas Surovy off a terrible Czech line change. The head coach for Czech Republic called a timeout with the score now 4-3, but the momentum would remain with Slovakia who continued to furiously battle back, only to be thwarted by a penalty called on Andrej Meszaros and time expiring, eliminating them from medal contention and sending the Czechs to face USA in the next round.
Ondrej Palat skated 8:43 on the bottom line for the Czechs and had a clean sheet. He was used sparingly in the first and third periods and mostly matched up against the 4th line for the Slovaks, which featured Richard Panik, who skated only 6:52. Slovakia was using their 4th line more than Czech Republic in the first two periods, but down 3 goals in the third, the head coach of Slovakia glued Panik and the rest of the 4th unit to the bench. Panik didn't take a shift in the final 20 minutes.
Radko Gudas was the Lightning player with the biggest impact. He played as a third pair defenseman with Michal Roszival, but played 17:14, considerably more than his partner as he took some special teams shifts with Tomas Kaberle. Gudas was physical as usual, though he was a bit over aggressive with the hipcheck on a few occasions, one where Tomas Jurco deked right around him after Gudas locked in the hit from 15+ feet away. He was strong on the puck carrier and showed good mobility defending from wall to wall on the big ice. After skating a team-high 9:05 in the 2nd period, with shifts at 5v5, 4v5, and 5v4, Gudas got a big rest in the final period as the Czechs closed out the win, getting just 1:57 of ice time in the final twenty minutes.
It's unclear whether this was a coach's decision or due to some nagging medical concern, either an injury or the sickness that held him out of the first two games.
Latvia (3) vs. Switzerland (1)
The Swiss were widely expected to win this one and give Canada more hard times as they have in the past, as a match-up with the Canadian juggernaut loomed for whoever won this game.
Anaheim Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller had two shutouts so far in the tournament, but Latvia struck early on a goal from former NHL player Oskars Bartulis, assisted by another former NHLer Kaspars Daugavins and a talented young player just starting to make a name for himself in the NHL in Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres.
Switzerland has relied on strong defensive structure and elite goaltending to win games in this tournament, and their success in playing that style had many predicting they'd be a tough test for Canada in the next round. But Ted Nolan's Latvian squad broke through three times and Latvian goaltender Edgars Masalskis stopped 32 of 33 shots (.969 save percentage) en route to his second victory vs. Switzerland.
The lone Swiss goal came on an assist for the once (and future?) Tampa Bay Lightning signee Reto Suri, who skated 12:53 on the bottom line.
In two games versus Switzerland, Masalskis stopped 70/72 shots (.972 save percentage), leaving head coach Ted Nolan the difficult task of naming a starter for tomorrow's game vs. Canada. Stick with the "hot hand" in Masalskis, who will be tired, or the rested but raw Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Kristers Gudlevskis, who was good against Sweden at 5v5 but got victimized on the power play?
The top ranked Swedes will face Slovenia early tomorrow morning at 3AM Eastern; 3rd ranked Finland gets host Russia at 7:30 AM Eastern; 2nd ranked USA will face Czech Republic at 12PM noon Eastern; and Canada will play Latvia, also at 12:00 PM Eastern.