There's no more room for error.
With the preliminary round for the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championships all wrapped up as of Monday, it's now winner-take-all as the remaining six teams in the tournament bump and jostle game-by-game towards the ultimate prize: a gold medal.
Finland, Slovakia, Germany and Latvia are all out, leaving Canada, Sweden, the USA, Russia, the Czech Republic and Switzerland as the teams still standing. Aside from the absence of Finland, especially after they upset both Canada and the US in tournament exhibition play, none of the remaining teams are a surprise to still see in the thick of things, but that's the best part: these teams are all the best of the best, meaning that the most exciting hockey of the tournament is likely still yet to come.
Canada and Sweden, after finishing first in their respective groups, advance automatically to the semi-finals, leaving the other four teams to play an extra game to see who moves on, with the USA versus the Czech Republic and Russia taking on Switzerland
The USA's 2-2 round robin record is certainly not indicative of the true high quality of the team this year. Both of their losses came by very winnable 2-1 scores, and were against the two most successful nations this tournament has ever seen in Canada and Russia. The Americans needed a huge boost after their demoralizing loss to Canada on December 30 and they got it the very next day, crushing Slovakia 9-3 to generate some momentum heading into the finals.
John Gibson, an Anaheim Ducks 2nd rounder, is one of the top goaltenders in the 2013 WJCs so far, sporting a 1.93 G.A.A. and a .936 save percentage. He's easily been the best player for the US this year, and will once again be relied upon heavily to help lead his team. Alex Galchenyuk, drafted 3rd overall by the Montreal Canadiens this past summer, leads the team with 7 points through four games, and after scoring a couple points against Slovakia should be primed and ready to go against the Czechs.
The Czech Republic hasn't turned many heads or garnered much attention over the course of their four games, but the most important thing is that they've still been generating wins and should not be underestimated as an opponent. The Czechs lack scoring depth, but have been getting just enough production at the most opportune times by high-end forwards Dmitrij Jaskin, Tomas Hertl and Martin Frk, including an overtime winner by Jaskin against Germany on Monday. Radek Faksa, after a slow start, has points in back-to-back games, and might have a few tricks up his sleeve as he tries to score on Gibson, his OHL teammate with the Kitchener Rangers.
The Czechs' secret weapon, however, is goaltender Patrik Bartosak. While not a readily recognizable name, Bartosak has been stellar this season for the WHL's Red Deer Rebels with a 17-7 record and .931 save percentage, and hasn't lost a step at the WJCs, with a 1.98 G.A.A. and .924 save percentage. If Bartosak alone has another strong game then the Czech Republic could very easily give the USA a run for it's money.
The Russians, despite playing in their home nation, haven't really looked like themselves this tournament. They routed Germany 7-0, but were outplayed in their 2-1 win against the US, looked shaky in their 3-2 overtime win against Slovakia and were swept aside by the Canadians more easily than everyone expected, 4-1.
Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Kucherov and other high-profile forwards have been generating a steady amount of offense, but nowhere near the amount that they should be, with the tournament's top 10 scorers list oddly absent of Russian names. Thankfully for them, the team's goaltending duo of Andrei Makarov and Andrei Vasilevski has been consistently stellar. Either will be a safe option for the team to utilize going forward.
Switzerland stumbled more than they strolled into the quarterfinals, with a record of one win and three overtime losses, but have pulled off big upsets in past years, including a 3-2 stunner against Russia in 2010, and are more than capable of doing it again.
Scoring by committee has been their number one strength so far, with six different players all registering four points or more across their four preliminary round games. The Swiss have proven themselves to be scrappy and resilient in this tournament, and will need to keep that going (and hope for some extra good fortune) if they hope to contain what will likely be a determined, and maybe even desperate, Russian team.
USA vs. Czech Republic - 4 a.m. CT, live on NHL Network
Russia vs. Switzerland - 8 a.m. CT, live on NHL Network
The USA game will also be live streamed on NHL.com.