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Blackhawks Tue Feb 23 2010

Olympic Hockey Shifts to Elimination Mode, U.S. Savors Top Seed

Today begins the win-or-go-home portion of the Olympic hockey tournament, as eight teams will battle in play-in qualifiers to move into tomorrow's quarterfinals. The United States is the top seed in the tourney and will play the winner of the Belarus-Switzerland contest.

Speaking of the top seed, the U.S. earned it with a thrilling 5-3 victory over Canada Sunday night. The U.S. team notched the win in a manic back and forth game that saw the Canadians outshoot the Americans 45-23, but a supreme effort by goalie Ryan Miller, and some mistakes by his Canadian counterpart Martin Brodeur were the difference. The game was a rollercoaster of energy and intensity that matched the pregame hype, and the U.S. responded to the pressure by absorbing the opening salvo (they led 2-1 after the 1st despite being outshot 19-6) and scored timely goals before withstanding the final Canadian push.

On the local side, Blackhawks forward Jonathon Toews netted two assists, and blueliners Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook added one apiece, but it wasn't enough for the Canadians. Patrick Kane had one shot but was mostly ineffective, as the young U.S. team's biggest strength was its few veterans and overall grit and toughness.

After the jump, a preview of the elimination rounds...

While the American victory was no Miracle on Ice (after all, this was two squads of NHL All-Stars competing), the upset put the U.S. in prime position and left the host Canadians' medal hopes in jeopardy. The Americans get an extra day of rest with the bye, as do Sweden, Finland and Russia.

Canada will play Germany in tonight's play-in at 6:30pm, and hometown Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo will be between the pipes over Brodeur. With a win over the Germans, Canada will advance to play Russia, a matchup that many predicted would be for the gold medal. Instead, one of the two pre-tournament favorites will find themselves off the podium entirely.

With the top seed, the U.S. has an easier road to medal contention. At 2pm Wednesday, the Americans will take on the winner of today's Switzerland-Belarus game. The U.S. beat the Swiss 3-1 in their first game of the tournament, and Belarus managed to only beat the Germans, who were winless in the round-robin play. The U.S. should be favored to defeat either opponent, which would move them into the semis and guarantee them a chance to play for at least the bronze. They would match up with the winner of the Finland and Czech Republic/Latvia quarterfinal, avoiding the Russians or Canadians until either the gold or bronze medal game. Finland beat the U.S. team in the quarterfinals at the 2006 Turin games, where they won the silver, and is playing a feisty, strong game so far in Vancouver. A Finland-U.S. matchup pits two very rough and tumble, physical teams together, where defense and goaltending figure to be key.

In the other quarterfinal, #2 Sweden plays the winner of Slovakia and Norway, and the 2006 gold medalists would take on the winner of the probable Russia-Canada showdown in the semifinals in another highly-anticipated battle. This side of the bracket is stacked with three of the top teams entering the Olympics, and the war of attrition between the Russians, Canadians and Swedes will be a battle to behold. Follow the link to the full schedule of the Olympic playoff.

With this possibly being the final Olympics featuring NHL players (the league and the International Olympic Committee are still negotiating a resolution for the 2014 games in Sochi), expect the next few games to up the emotional intensity as the NHL stars strive for Olympic glory and gold.

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