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Olympic Hockey Heats Up Ho-Hum Games

In an Olympics that have lacked the sizzle of previous games, hockey is turning up the heat.

The US Men's Hockey team takes on the Czech Republic in the semi finals at noon today that could put them in the medal round or send them packing.

  Sabres Coach Ted Nolan's Latvia scored a surprise victory.

And the US Women's hockey team plays for the Gold Medal Thursday.

"There is definitely a stronger buzz in the air in the last 24 hours, with he four quarter final games today. This is the fun time in the tournament," says Sabres VP Mike Gilbert, in Sochi to work with US Hockey.

Local bars are gearing up for large crowds during today's games.  READ MORE

Latvia- with Sabres head coach Ted Nolan  and Canada (with former Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff as an assistant)  also play each other at noon Wednesday   The Latvian team stunned everyone with an upset that has one national publication talking about miracles in Sochi, even if he can't work them in Buffalo. More on Nolan and Latvia

Exclusive WBEN Audio
In Sochi

Sabres VP Mike Gilbert
with a game preview

CBS's Steve Futterman
Canada, Sweden and the U.S. men all made it through the first week of the Olympic hockey tournament without a loss. Their reward was  an extra day off before the medal chase begins.

Early perfection isn't always an advantage in this tense tournament, however.  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.

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."

Buffalo, NY (WBEN) - It may come as a surprise to some that area bars who opened for this past Saturday's early morning US hockey game were packed.

The same can't be said for Jessica Pirro though. Pirro is one of the owners of Mes Que on Hertel, which has made a name for itself by being open early weekend mornings and on weekday afternoons to show soccer games.

"Early morning games aren't unusual for us," Pirro said. "We had a great turnout, a great feel, and this place was packed. We're not a huge place but it was filled from wall to wall and it had a great energy throughout the game."


On The WBEN Liveline: Inside Cole's on Elmwood Ave.  | Labbat's Pond Hockey & Olympics Bring Jumbotron to Pearl Street Grill & Brewery

Since its opening, Mes Que has been the place to go to watch soccer games at odd hours, but Wednesday they'll once again be open to show the US hockey game for those who are able to grab a drink on a Wednesday at noon.

"We definitely encourage people to follow the rules of their employer," Pirro said about people potentially calling in sick to watch games. "We do have people who really love their sports. If it's hockey, if it's soccer, and they will work their schedules around it to be a part of it and be present to view these game because the intensity of some of these games is the memory of what they're going to take away from being here."


How will you take in the USA Olympic hockey?
I'm planning a "long" lunch(wink wink)
( 21% )
I'll listen while I work!
( 14% )
I'll follow along on social media.
( 9% )
I'll catch up later.
( 56% )

But how does Mes Que decide when is a good time to open early? Pirro says that social media plays a big role. "We will see what the interest is to determine if, for example, we weren't planning on opening for a specific game, but then we start to see a crowd of interest coming in (on social media), we'll adjust that."

Pirro says that it's been no problem packing their bar with Buffalo sports fans. They hope to have more chances to do that this week. If Team USA wins Wednesday, they will play in a semifinal game on Friday at either 7:00AM or noon, and there is a strong possibility that game would be against Canada.
How they Got Here:  Earlier Game Coverage

United States:   Phil Kessel scored two of his three goals within the opening five minutes to lead the U.S. to a 5-1 win against Slovenia on Sunday. The U.S. is undefeated through three games and if it can win three more, the nation will celebrate its first Olympic championship in hockey since the "Miracle on Ice" at the Lake Placid Games.

"It's about the wins, right?" Kessel asked, rhetorically. "We just want to win games."

No members of Team USA were alive when the U.S. beat the Soviet Union in 1980 in one of the biggest upsets in sports history. But if they end up with gold around their neck on Sunday, this title won't be regarded as a miracle.

Kessel and his teammates earned an automatic spot in the quarterfinals of the 12-team tournament by routing Slovenia and Slovakia, and outlasting Russia in a shootout, to finish atop their group. They've scored 15 and allowed only four goals so far.

The U.S. won't play again until Wednesday, when they'll face the winner of the Czech Republic's qualification-round game against Slovakia for a spot in the semifinals and the chance to play for medals.

Kessel scored 1:04 after the puck dropped, removing any thought the Americans would have a hangover after their much hyped victory against the host Russians on Saturday.

"I was certainly concerned after the emotional game," said coach Dan Bylsma. "We were fortunate that we got right out of the gate with a couple great plays."

Kessel's third goal midway through the second period made him the first U.S. player to score a hat trick at the Olympics since John LeClair did it on Feb. 15, 2002, against Finland


Czechs beat Slovakia 5-3, play US in quarterfinals

Roman Cervenka scored for a second time late in the second period to give the Czech Republic a four-goal lead, and it went on to beat Slovakia 5-3 on Tuesday and advance to an Olympic quarterfinal match against the United States.

"We're one game away to play for a medal and that's pretty special," David Krejci said after scoring the third of the Czechs' first-period goals.

The Slovaks pulled within a goal in the third, but their loss was sealed when Andrej Meszaros was called for slashing with 53 seconds left.

They pulled their goaltender to create an even-strength situation and Tomas Plekanec scored an empty-net goal 14 seconds later for the Czechs.

"We got the job done, that's the most important thing," said Krejci, a Boston Bruins forward.

The Czech Republic will play the Americans on Wednesday for a spot in the semifinals.

"It will be a tough game, but at this point in the tournament there's no easy games," said Ales Hemsky, who scored the Czechs' first goal 6:53 after the puck dropped. "So anyone can win against anybody."

Ondrej Pavelec, who stopped 29 shots, didn't give up a goal until Slovakia's Marian Hossa scored with 1:03 left in the second period.

Hossa scored again, off a rebound, midway through the third period. Tomas Surovy's slap shot made the final 11-plus minutes intense in the elimination game until the costly late penalty.

  Sweden tops Slovenia 5-0, advances to hockey semis

Henrik Lundqvist made 19 saves for his second shutout of the Sochi Games and Carl Hagelin scored twice, helping Sweden rout upstart Slovenia 5-0 Wednesday to advance into Olympic hockey semifinals.

The 2006 Olympic champions will face the winner of the Russia-Finland game Friday for a spot in the gold-medal game.

Sweden is the only team to win all four of its games in regulation in what has been quite a feat without Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Sedin and Johan Franzen.

The short-handed Swedes ended a feel-good story, eliminating Slovenia in its first Olympic hockey tournament.

Alexander Steen broke a scoreless tie 18:50 into the game. After a scoreless second, Daniel Sedin, Loui Eriksson and Hagelin broke the game open with four goals in the third period.

Hagelin shook off a hit to the head, a break for a team already missing three top-line forwards. Hagelin skated off the ice went to the bench in a daze with a busted-up lip after Slovenia's Sabahudin Kovacevic landed his left shoulder on his head midway through the game. Kovacevic was suspended for a game earlier in the tournament for hitting Slovakia's Tomas Kopecky in the head with his left elbow.

Early in the lopsided game, Slovenia was competitive and looked as if it belonged on the ice with a traditional power. It weathered an early storm of shots and started to control the puck and create chances of its own, but Lundqvist snagged or blocked everything

Ted Nolan, Latvia shock the world at Sochi Olympics

Latvia's reward for its first Olympic victory in 12 years is a quarterfinal date with defending champion Canada.

That sobering realization couldn't dampen the thrill for coach Ted Nolan and his underdog players after they made a bit of hockey history in Sochi.

RELATED: ESPN writes: " There won't be any miracles in Buffalo this season, but Ted Nolan sure has pulled one off here in Sochi"    Read More

Oskars Bartulis and Lauris Darzins scored in the first period, and Latvia reached the Olympic men's hockey quarterfinals for the first time with a 3-1 victory over Switzerland on Tuesday night.

Edgars Masalskis made 32 saves and Darzins added an empty-net goal in the Latvians' first Olympic victory since 2002, when they returned to the games after a 66-year absence. After the clock ran out on an impressive victory over a rising Swiss team, the Latvians gathered around Masalskis for a joyous group hug.

"It's just awesome to do this for all of the great veteran players that we have," said Buffalo's Zemgus Girgensons, Latvia's only active NHL player. (pictured L) 

"No one has done it before, so it's unbelievable to be in the quarterfinals and beat the Swiss," he says.

Latvia went winless in preliminary-round play in Sochi, losing 1-0 to the Swiss in its opener. But the Baltic nation of 2 million people posted the second stunner of the qualification round, several hours after Slovenia beat Austria for its own debut trip to the quarterfinals.

Nolan, the Canadian who also coaches the Buffalo Sabres, took a moment to appreciate the breakthrough before focusing on a date with Canada on Wednesday night.

"I just really care about the players and (making) them enjoy this game," Nolan said. "To come to the Olympics and play in this venue, it's a thrill of a lifetime. ... Today was a lucky day for us. We got some good breaks, but it's great for Latvian hockey, for sure."

AP PhotoWhen Sidney Crosby went through the entire preliminary round of the Olympic men's hockey tournament without scoring a goal, it set off waves of concern back home.

Canadians should know better than anybody that Crosby is more into big Olympic finishes.

"I think you always want more," Crosby said when asked if he was doing enough for Canada. "If you asked me that question a month ago, I'd have said, `I'd like to create more.' It's the same way now. You always want to generate offense, create chances, and obviously put the puck in the net."

During its two days off before Wednesday's quarterfinal game, the Canadian team reacted with a collective shrug when asked about Crosby's no-goal performance so far in Sochi.

The NHL's top scorer has two assists while playing with a rotating cast of wings, and coach Mike Babcock appears ready to shake it up again Tuesday, perhaps reuniting Crosby with his much-criticized Pittsburgh teammate, Chris Kunitz.

That's normal tinkering in a short tournament, Babcock said. The coach isn't concerned about his star center, and he laughs at anybody who thinks Crosby won't score when the games really count.

"The first line has generated a ton of scoring chances, point-blankers," Babcock said. "They haven't gone in. Do we worry that much about that, or do we just know good players score in the end? Lots of times in the Stanley Cup playoffs, your team goes a ways and your best players have no points in the first round. Someone else picks them up. But by the time it's all over, they're leading the thing in scoring. It's not about that. It's about finding a way to be the best team."

AP Photo
Lindy Ruff, head coach of the NHL Dallas Stars and an assistant coach for the Canadian Olympic hockey team, arrives at the Sochi International Airport for the 2014 Winter Olympics. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Canada won all three of its preliminary-round games, going to overtime against Finland. The defending Olympic champions finished with the No. 3 seed in the quarterfinals.

Even if Crosby never scores another Olympic goal - an incredibly unlikely scenario - he'll always be beloved in Canada for his gold medal-winning overtime score four years ago. Back at his second Olympics, Crosby is Canada's captain after Scott Niedermayer had the leadership role in Vancouver.

Babcock doesn't see leadership or changing linemates slowing down Crosby. In fact, he thinks any concern over Crosby is utter foolishness.

"Everyone evaluates Sid on scoring, and I evaluate Sid on winning," Babcock said after Canada's 2-1 overtime victory over Finland, in which both goals were scored by defenseman Drew Doughty.

Although he isn't filling up the scoresheet, Crosby clearly makes contributions beyond the box score. He hasn't been on the ice for any goals by Canada's opponents, setting an example for his teammates with a responsible two-way game.

Crosby's chances for goals also have been limited by Canada's lack of power-play time. The Canadians had just four man-advantages in their three games, leaving Babcock wondering why he's practicing the power play at all.

Kunitz, who made the team largely on his Penguins-based chemistry with Crosby, has been criticized for his lack of finishing skills in Sochi. But Kunitz was back with Crosby at practice Tuesday along with Patrice Bergeron, while former Crosby linemate Jamie Benn teamed up with Anaheim Ducks stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

Crosby acknowledges it's ideal to play with the same linemates, but true chemistry can't be built in 12 days by the Black Sea. He's confident Canada's lines will enough to contend for its third gold medals in four Olympics, whether or not he's scoring goals himself.

"I think you're always aware of who you're playing with, and what their strengths are," Crosby said. "But I don't think it changes what you do out there. I don't think you really have a chance to overthink too much. ... All the guys here are so good, I think you can just read off each other, no matter who you're playing with."

02/18/2014 5:10PM
Local Bars Open Early to Serve Hockey Hungry Fans
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