February 18, 2014 at 1:00 am

Gregg Krupa

It's win or go home time in Olympic hockey

If the Russians, left, lose today, they're out of the tournament on home ice; the Americans already are in Wednesday's quarterfinals. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Sochi, Russia — The USA meshed immediately, and the reputed lunch-bucket crew is flying so high into a couple days off that perhaps complacency is its only concern.

Sweden is the only perfect team in men’s hockey at the 2014 Sochi Games. But without two stellar Henriks, Zetterberg (Red Wings) and Sedin (Canucks), will it persist?

The Canadians and Russians are looking for the formula. Coach Mike Babcock unceasingly tinkers with lines, and coach Zinetula “Bill” Bilyaletdinov says he might be about to do that with his lineup.

And Finland? Well, so much for “little” Finland once again, eh? No wonder Stalin had so much difficulty with them. Whether in hockey or war, apparently, the Finns surely know how to defend.

After 18 games in the preliminary round, we arrive today at the qualification round.

The Americans, Swedes, Canadians and Finns earned the right to pass through to the quarterfinals.

Russia must play Norway to get there. The Czechs must play the Slovaks, the Swiss the Latvians and the Slovenians the Austrians.

If Olympic hockey teaches anything, it is that a team not excelling in the preliminaries can suddenly catch fire and burn right through to the gold medal or at least the podium. The opposite is also true: A team ablaze can burn out.

And, right now, Amerikanska — as some Russian fans around the concourses of the Bolshoy Ice Dome call the team — is on fire.

They have outscored their opponents, 15-4, and if there was any concern an emotional, fast-paced victory last Saturday over Russia would lead to a letdown against Slovenia the next day, they dispatched the notion

Phil Kessel (Maple Leafs) scored at 1 minute, 4 seconds of the first period and again at 4:33.

“We were fortunate enough to get off to an early start,” said coach Dan Bylsma (Penguins), who was born in Grand Haven and played sports in Grand Rapids and Muskegon.

In fact, if it is a concern, it might be the hockey equivalent of too much caviar and too little bologna.

“There was maybe too much skill in our game,” he said, underlining what many players and coaches are saying here: Against the equivalent of all-star teams from each country, the grinders and teams willing to play defense could win.

“Too much trying to turn over the puck,” Bylsma said, facetiously making a point about the Yanks getting perhaps a bit ahead of themselves and off the well-delineated game plan.

That the Americans seem to have jelled more quickly than the Canadians or Russians may be because the managers stuck with the formula that got them to within a goal of the gold four years ago. They selected guys who they believed could play together and work hard, before star power and offensive pyrotechnics.

Even the offensive dazzle they have shown results from three stars playing like they have been together for a few seasons: Kessel, Joe Pavelski (Sharks) and James van Riemsdyk (Maple Leafs).

Van Riemsdyk, who has had three strong games, assisted on each goal of Kessel’s hat trick.

“Everyone realized their roles and how they had to play,” said Ryan Callahan (Rangers). “I think as a team we felt the chemistry.”

Canada still the champ

In Canada, where there is always much concern about everything involving the national team, there was particular concern over a bit of a stuttering game last Sunday against the Finns.

While the Canadians, also 2-0-1, have outscored their opponents, 11-2, the offense is perceived as not clicking.

“Some of the guys on the team are used to putting up three points a night and when that doesn’t happen, you can’t get too frustrated,” said Rick Nash (Rangers).

Sidney Crosby is yet to get untracked, with two assists through 47:11.

Just as he did in Vancouver, Babcock is mixing and matching to see if he can get the right line combinations going, in part to support Crosby.

If tweets and published reports are any indication, it is not going over so well in Canada.

“He’s a tough guy to keep up with,” Nash said of Babcock. “He’s so fast. The way he thinks about the game seems like it’s far beyond everyone else’s process.

“It was the same thing in Vancouver. He kept shuffling them around until he found something that fit.”

And, Canada won the gold.

“Scoring chances for us were 18-5 last night, so good for us,” Babcock said.

“The best thing for us is what happened yesterday.

“If we think we’re getting seven goals, we’re watching the wrong sport. It’s going to be 2-1.”

Surprising Swedes

The Swedes entered the tournament banged up, and with Zetterberg returning to the U.S. for an examination and likely treatment, if not surgery, for the ruptured disk in his back, things got worse.

Regardless, the Swedes also have coalesced as a roster and are playing well.

“You wish the circumstances were different,” said Niklas Kronwall (Red Wings), who replaced Zetterberg as team captain. “But we’re moving forward.

“We have to play better than we have. We can’t sit and dwell about what would be happening if he were here.”

Finland continues to play the sort of stifling defense that has helped them do better in international tournaments than was expected.

Generally undermanned, the Finns believe if they can stop big countries from scoring against them, they have a shot at winning.

“When my teammates realized we can compete against these guys, it was a totally different game,” the great Teemu Selanne (Ducks) said after the 2-1 overtime loss to Canada.

“That was a good confidence boost for us, and we can beat anybody when we play our best.”

Making a run

The Russians are a bit of a puzzle. With awesome firepower up front, they have yet to display it. With concerns about defense and goaltending, they have played well at both positions, generally.

Alexander Ovechkin (Capitals) has one goal in three games.

It certainly looks like the big stars from various NHL and KHL teams are not meshing up front.

“Of course we are not happy with this game,” Pavel Datyuk (Red Wings) said after the 1-0 defeat of Slovakia.

“We wanted to win it in regular time, not to go into shootouts or cause heart attacks.”

Bilyaletdinov and Ovechkin both gave Slovakia credit for a stifling defense that sometimes saw four players arrayed at the blue line.

“We definitely have thought about it,” Bilyaletdinov said of making changes in the lineup or strategies. “But we didn’t think it was necessary to change any lineups today.

“We might look into changing one or two, but there will not be major changes.”

Unclearly Canadian

Hockey playoffs: What to watch

While Canada didn’t lose a game in the preliminary round, it’s tough to tell how well the most loaded roster in Sochi will do when the games really count. Finland might have provided a blueprint on overcoming Canada’s talent during their game last weekend: Push Canada’s forwards to the perimeter of the big international ice, relentlessly knock pucks off Canada’s sticks, and allow Canada’s goalies to grow weary with boredom before striking for a scoring chance. Canada’s top-end offensive talent hasn’t produced much at the Olympics, although defensemen Drew Doughty and Shea Weber have improbably picked up the goal-scoring slack. The Canadians might just be getting started, or they might be in deep water quickly.
Alex Ovechkin scored a goal 1:17 into his home Olympics, and the NHL MVP hasn’t found the net since. The Capitals star isn’t finding much space to operate on his line with Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin. Ovi also wasn’t chosen to participate in either of the two shootouts, although that particular skill contest isn’t his specialty. These games are indescribably important to Ovechkin, who is essentially the public worldwide face of the Russian team. Any frustration he might be feeling has been kept in check publicly, but he’s undoubtedly putting pressure on himself to deliver goals in the elimination games.
Sweden’s finish on top of the table is even more impressive because of its significant injuries. Henrik Zetterberg (Red Wings), Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen (Red Wings) are out, leaving a perennial international power without a significant part of its core. True, the Swedes had arguably the easiest group in qualification, and they had to sweat out a 1-0 win over lively Switzerland. But as long as the Swedes have Henrik Lundqvist in net, they’re a contender to add another gold medal to their top prize from Turin in 2006. Without a misstep in the quarterfinals, Sweden is likely to meet Russia or Finland on Friday for a spot in the gold medal game.
T.J. Oshie is getting all the ink, but the leading scorer of the entire Olympics is U.S. forward Phil Kessel, who has four goals and three assists in three victories. Kessel has been superb lately for his Maple Leafs, and he’s still rolling on the shores of the Black Sea. During his hat trick against Slovenia last weekend, his jaw-dropping goal on a mid-air pass by Joe Pavelski ranks among the top American highlights from anybody not named Oshie.
Greg Beacham, Associated Press