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February 19, 2014

Russia faces rough road after classic US shootout win

SOCHI, Russia — Thanks to that memorable shootout loss to the U.S., Russia must win four games in six days to bring home its first Olympic men’s hockey gold medals in 22 years.

Alex Ovechkin and his teammates begin attempting this daunting task yesterday with a 4-0 win over Norway when elimination games began in Sochi.

The top four teams from preliminary-round play all get the day off to prepare for their quarterfinal matchups. Canada, Sweden, the U.S. and Finland have an extra day of rest, but that hasn’t always been an advantage in this tense tournament.

No team that went unbeaten in group play has won an Olympic gold medal since the NHL joined the games in 1998. Every champion was forced to regroup after getting beaten early in the tournament, from the Czech Republic in 1998 to the host Canadians four years ago in Vancouver.

That history suggests the Russians have a shot, and it’s impossible to write off their entertaining roster and all of its flaws. If Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk can get their offense going, the Russians are a rough matchup for anybody in Sochi — even without a raucous home crowd roaring each time its team gets the puck over the opposing blue line.

Norway hasn’t won an Olympic match since the home Lillehammer Games in 1994.

Olympic veterans realize the tone of this 12-day event changes after the opening-round games. Although nobody is under as much pressure as the host Russians, every player realizes one mistake in the second week can destroy their nation’s Olympic aspirations.

“Obviously these (elimination) games always have a bit more of a different feel, but you don’t want to have to change the way you play a whole lot,” Canada captain Sidney Crosby said. “I think we’ve been playing the right way here for three games. I think we’ve gotten better.”

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