SOCHI, Russia (AP) — It's time to find out just whether China belongs at the top table of men's curling.
The Chinese find themselves in an unusual position at the Sochi Olympics — first in the standings, above established curling powers like Canada, Britain and Sweden, and undefeated after four games.
Perhaps just one more win from their last five round-robin games will be enough to secure a place in the semifinals. Not bad for a team which finished eighth in its only previous Olympics and has never seriously challenged for the world title.
So can they handle the pressure? Not even their coach knows.
"I don't know how they are going to respond, to be honest," said Marcel Rocque, the Canada curling great who was hired to coach China's men's and women's team for the year up to and including the Olympics.
"And I don't know if they know how they will respond. They just have to trust in the training and the work that we have done."
The schedule has been kind to Liu Rui's rink early on, but that's about to change. On Friday, China will play Sweden in the morning session and Norway in the evening.
And they still have two more of the "big guns," as Rocque puts it, left to play in Canada and Britain in their final two group games.
If China does slip up, there are teams waiting to pounce in the fight for a top-four finish and spot in the playoffs.
Sweden and Britain have 4-1 records. Norway is 3-1 and Canada has won two straight to recover to 3-2.
The Canadians, the two-time defending champions, look to be back in reasonable shape after a rocky start to the Olympics when Brad Jacobs' rink lost to Sweden and Switzerland and struggled to play in front of Russian crowds that are far more raucous than those in Canada.
"When we lost those two games, we regrouped. We talked a lot," Jacobs said. "We talked with our coaches and we discovered what we needed to do in order to get better at this event.
"That was to bring a lot more energy to each and every shot, each and every game. Kind of the same energy and intensity that we had at the Olympic trials and the Brier playoffs (Canada's national championship)."
In the women's tournament, Canada (5-0) and Sweden (4-1) — the top two teams — have Friday off so Britain (2-2) can claw its way closer to its main rivals for gold by beating Japan.