By Helene Elliott
4:40 PM PST, February 18, 2014
SOCHI, Russia — The U.S. men's hockey team was designed to be fast and hard to play against and it was all of that in the preliminary round of the Sochi Olympic tournament, sandwiching a dramatic shootout victory over Russia between routs of Slovakia and Slovenia.
But as many bruises as the U.S. players inflicted with their in-your-face style, as many vapor trails as they left by capitalizing on their speed on the wide international ice surface, those were only preludes to what they must do as the knockout phase begins.
The real test, center Ryan Kesler correctly said, begins Wednesday in the quarterfinals, in which the U.S. will face a Czech Republic team that's stocked with veterans and can score.
"We're confident, but we know we've still got a lot of work to do," Kesler said. "It's win or go home, and we focus on that game and not worry about anything else."
In other quarterfinals Wednesday, top-seeded Sweden will face upstart Slovenia, Finland will face host Russia, and surprising Latvia will face Canada, all at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
The Czechs set up their matchup with the U.S. by hanging on to beat Slovakia, 5-3, Tuesday in a qualification playoff game at Shayba Arena. Jaromir Jagr, who turned 42 last week and played on the Czechs' 1998 gold-medal team, had an assist as the Czechs pulled out to a 4-0 lead and then held off a late charge by Slovakia, which left Sochi without a win.
Roman Cervenka, who played for the NHL's Calgary Flames last season before leaving for Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, scored two goals. NHL players Ales Hemsky (Edmonton), David Krejci (Boston) and Tomas Plekanec (Montreal) also scored to support a 29-save effort by goaltender Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets.
Czech and Philadelphia Flyers winger Jakub Voracek had nothing but praise for the U.S. "They're the best team in the tournament, the way they're playing," he said.
"We've got to make sure we get our power play going, like we did [Tuesday], because special teams is going to be huge. We've got to skate for 60 minutes because they're a very fast team. We've got to make sure we are ready because it's going to be tough."
Voracek acknowledged the Czechs tired in the third period Tuesday, and they will have only a day's recovery time before they face the speedy U.S. That could wear them down.
But Hemsky said he and his teammates won't feel any pressure.
"We have nothing to lose," he said. "The U.S. are a great team. They have a young team and a lot of great players that can score," he said. "They are a fast team and they are playing great all tournament. ...
"You never know. If our goalie plays great again, you never know. It's a tournament. One game, you never know."
U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick of the Kings said he and his teammates gained self-assurance as they meshed during the first round.
"It's a confident group," said Quick, who is expected to start on Wednesday. "You win three games, you're going to have some confidence. Obviously, we know we need to play better going forward here, so that's what the focus is, trying to get better."
Here's a look at how the Kings and Ducks did Tuesday in playoff qualification games:
Kings center Anze Kopitar scored Slovenia's first goal in a 4-0 victory over Austria.
Kings defenseman Slava Voynov had one shot and was plus-two defensively in a team-leading 20:43 as Russia beat Norway, 4-0.
Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller leaves Sochi with a 2-1-0 record, two shutouts, an 0.67 goals-against average and a .971 save percentage after a 3-1 loss to Latvia.
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