By Frank Pingue
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Russia marched into the quarter-finals of the men's ice hockey competition at the Sochi Winter Olympics on Tuesday, joining a feel-good Slovenian team, the Czech Republic and a surprising Latvia in the last eight along with the four automatic qualifiers.
Despite struggling at times with their offense, the Russians scored twice in each of the last two periods to beat Norway 4-0 and set up a quarter-final clash with Finland on Wednesday.
"It is do-or-die games right now," said Russian forward Alex Ovechkin. "I'm pretty sure everybody on Finland is going to be ready for tomorrow, and we're going to be ready as well."
Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk each had second period goals before Radulov scored an empty netter with 67 seconds left then Alexei Tereshenko finished off the rout in the last minute.
Sergei Bobrovski stopped 22 shots for the shutout while Radulov, who also had an assist, enjoyed his best game of the competition.
Slovenia, a country with just seven ice rinks, continued their fairytale run to reach the quarter-finals in their first Olympic appearance in men's ice hockey.
Their 4-0 victory over Austria set up a semi-final with a powerful Swedish team that finished the preliminary round with the best record of the 12 competing teams.
Anze Kopitar, who missed most of the previous game with a stomach flu, provided Slovenia with the perfect start when his shot from the slot squeezed through Mathias Lange's pads and trickled over the goal line less than six minutes into the game.
"I don't think any of us would have expected this," said Kopitar, whose father Matjaz is the national team coach.
"But we are a relentless group with obviously a lot of passion ... and that's what's taken us to where we are right now and we're ready to keep on going."
'LONG, HARD ROAD'
Latvia also reached the Olympic quarter-finals for the first time, beating Switzerland 3-1 to avenge their 1-0 loss to the Swiss in the preliminary rounds.
Latvia got goals from Oskars Bartulis and Lauris Darzins in the first 12 minutes. The Swiss struck back late in the second period on a goal from Martin Pluss but Darzins iced the result when he scored into an empty net with a minute left on the clock.
Latvia lost all three of their preliminary games and Tuesday's victory was their first at the Olympics in 12 years. Their reward is a quarter-final clash with the defending gold medallists Canada.
"It was a long, hard road to here but we stuck together as a team and battled through it and came out winners," said Latvian captain Sandis Ozolins. "We're pretty glad with our play today."
Asked what the win meant for Latvian ice hockey, Ozolins was lost for words. "You got to ask someone who is not as excited right now as I am," he said.
The Czech Republic held on to beat Slovakia 5-3 after surviving a fierce comeback.
Two goals from Roman Cervenka and one each from Ales Hemsky and David Krejci gave the Czech Republic a seemingly comfortable 4-0 lead late in the second period.
But Slovakia responded with three goals during a 13-minute stretch, that spanned the second and third periods, to set up a wild finish.
Czech captain Tomas Plekanec seal the win with an empty netter with 39 seconds to play.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue; Editing by Julian Linden)