Olympic Women's Hockey 2014: Complete Guide for Sochi Winter Olympics

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2014

Olympic Women's Hockey 2014: Complete Guide for Sochi Winter Olympics

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    For the fifth time in Olympic history, the world's best female hockey players will face off for a shot at gold at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

    The strong growth of women's hockey saw the sport approved for Olympic inclusion in 1992, with a debut at the Nagano games in 1998. Team USA triumphed at that inaugural event, but the powerhouse Canadians have since won three straight golds in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

    The continued dominance of the two North American squads over the rest of the field has led to a format change that was first introduced at the 2012 IIHF World Championship. The change in group structure has proven successful at creating a better competitive balance in the early rounds and lessening the dominating blowouts inflicted by the U.S. and Canadian sides.

    If you're familiar with men's hockey, you won't see a lot of difference in the women's game—except for the ponytails hanging out from the bottoms of players' helmets. Body-checking is illegal in women's hockey, but there's still a strong physical component to the game. Female players are just as adept as the men at using their bodies and sticks to challenge their opponents—they're just a little sneakier.

    Women's hockey is one of the first events to kick off at this year's Games. The preliminary round gets underway on Feb. 8 at Shayba Arena, and the gold medals will be awarded on Feb. 20 at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.

Biggest Storylines

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    Can Team USA Continue Its Recent Dominance?

    Since women's hockey entered the Olympics, there have been just two top teams. Canada won gold in Vancouver in 2010 with a 2-0 victory over the Americans, then defeated Team USA 5-4 in overtime at the 2012 World Championship. Since then, the Americans scored gold in 2013 and held the upper hand by winning the last four games of a six game pre-Olympic tuneup against Canada this winter. 

     

    Can Team Canada Recover From Pre-Tournament Unrest?

    The Olympics are the most important date on the women's hockey calendar, yet Team Canada found itself in an unprecedented state of chaos when head coach Dan Church abruptly resigned Dec. 12, 2013. Church had been leading the ladies since 2011, and his departure came as a surprise.

    When former NHL player and head coach Kevin Dineen picked up the reins, he wasn't able to lead his team to victory in its final tune-up games against the Americans. According to Stephen Whyno of The Globe and Mail, it's all about being ready for the Olympic stage. We'll soon see if Dineen has the magic touch.

     

    Can the Lower-Ranked Teams Narrow the Gap Behind the Superpowers?

    In the past four Olympics, only one nation other than Canada or the U.S. has ever appeared in the gold medal game. Sweden surprised to win silver in 2006, while Team USA won bronze. 

    In a more recent upset, Finland beat the Americans in round-robin play at the 2013 Four Nations Cup, capturing silver and pushing the Americans down to the bronze medal position. 

    After the Vancouver Games, IOC President Jacques Rogge asserted that "we cannot continue without improvement" when it comes to women's hockey (per Time.com). Strong efforts from some of the tournament's lower-ranked teams would help to ensure the sport's continued viability at the Olympic level.

     

    Will There Be a Line Brawl?

    Emotions have run very high between the Canadian and U.S. teams during the run up to these Olympics, and tempers have flared.

    Over the past few months, more than one contest between the two sides has ended in a full-scale line brawl—and those were just the warm-up games. The women can't inflict much damage when their opponents are wearing full cages, but some very unladylike aggression has become a common feature of Canada-U.S. games. Sparks could fly in Sochi.

Tournament Format, Schedule, TV and Live Stream Info

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    Tournament Format Change:

    In an effort to produce more competitive preliminary-round games, the four top-ranked women's teams have been placed in Group A, while the bottom-four teams will be in Group B.

    After preliminary-round play, the top two teams from Group A—most likely Canada and U.S.A.—will automatically advance to the semifinal, while the bottom two teams from the group will play off against the top two teams from Group B in a quarterfinal round.

    The winners of the quarterfinal will move on the semifinal and a chance to play for a medal. The losers will play the bottom two teams from Group B to determine positions five through eight.

     

    Schedule:

    Preliminary Round: Feb. 8-13

    Quarterfinal: Feb. 15

    Semifinal: Feb. 17

    Bronze and Gold Medal Games: Feb. 20

     

    TV and Live Stream Info:

    In the U.S., all hockey and other events will stream live to authenticated customers at NBCOlympics.com and through the NBC Sports Live Extra mobile app for iPhone, iPad and Android.

    According to Newsday, all Team USA women's hockey games and the playoff-round games will be broadcast live on NBC Sports Network.

    In Canada, all women's hockey games will be shown live, though channels will vary.

    Preliminary-round games featuring Team Canada will run on CBC, while other games will run on Sportsnet, TSN or TSN2. The quarterfinal will be on Sportsnet, both semifinals will be on CBC, and the bronze medal game will be on TSN while the gold medal game airs on CBC. Check cbc.ca/olympics for detailed TV schedule, streaming and mobile information.

Group A Breakdown

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    What Are the Matchups?

    Group A features four top seeds in women's hockey, based on 2012 IIHF world rankings. Canada was ranked No. 1 at that time, though the second-ranked U.S. team has since passed them to claim the top spot. Finland and Switzerland are ranked third and fourth, but the Swiss dropped to fifth place in the 2013 rankings.

    The top teams will be battling it out for supremacy, while Switzerland will be fighting for position in the standings against the stronger Finns going into the quarterfinal.

     

    What Are the Must-Watch Games?

    Canada vs. USA: Wed. Feb. 12, 7:30 a.m. ET

    Finland vs. Switzerland: Wed. Feb. 12, 3 a.m. ET

Group B Breakdown

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    What Are the Matchups?

    Group B features Sweden and Russia, who were ranked fifth and sixth in 2012. The other two spots were claimed by the winners of a qualification tournament, Germany and Japan.

     

    What Are the Must-Watch Games?

    Keep an eye on Russia. The team climbed to No. 4 in the 2013 world rankings.

    Former NHLer Alexei Yashin took over as Russian general manager before the 2013 Women's World Championship and led his team to a surprise bronze medal.

    Russian goaltender Nadezhda Aleksandrova was also named top goaltender in the tournament. The host Russians have a real chance to win their group and challenge in the playoff round.

    Russia vs. Germany: Sun. Feb. 9, 8 a.m. ET

    Russia vs. Japan: Tues. Feb. 11, 10 a.m. ET

    Russia vs. Sweden: Thurs. Feb. 13, 12 p.m. ET

Players to Watch

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    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

    Hayley Wickenheiser: Canada

    With three gold medals and one silver in her four previous winter Olympic appearances, 35-year-old Hayley Wickenheiser is one of Canada's most-decorated Olympians. Sochi will mark her sixth Olympics, as she also played softball for Canada at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.

    Wickenheiser became captain of the Canadian hockey team in 2010, but was replaced by Caroline Ouellette this January. She'll be Canada's flag-bearer at the Olympic Opening Ceremony on Feb. 7 and is taking a wait-and-see attitude about whether this might be her last Olympics.

    Canada's all-time leading scorer in international competition, Wickenheiser is in the twilight of her hockey career but can still be a force on the ice.

     

    Amanda Kessel: USA

    As Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs dons the Team USA jersey for the second time in Sochi, his 22-year-old sister Amanda is getting ready to make a name for herself on the women's side.

    Amanda was named the 2013 women's college player of the year after leading the University of Minnesota to a 41-0-0 record. She also scored the gold medal-winning goal against Canada at the 2013 IIHF World Championship.

    Amanda has been out of action for the last several months as she has rehabbed a hip injury, but Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times reports that she's on the ice in Sochi and working to regain her all-star form.

     

    Noora Raty: Finland

    For a player outside the big two who could single-handedly change the complexion of the Olympic tournament, look no further than Finnish goaltender Noora Raty. 

    At just 24, Raty will already be playing in her third Olympics. She was a difference-maker for her team in Vancouver, where Finland captured the bronze medal, and was the backstop for Finland's silver medal upset at the 2013 Four Nations Cup.

    Raty has experience playing with the North Americans—she was also part of Amanda Kessel's 2012-13 University of Minnesota team that went 41-0-0.

     

    Yekaterina Smolentseva: Russia

    If Russia hopes to build on its growth as a women's hockey power over the past couple of years, it'll need to rely on Smolenstseva. The 32-year-old forward is a three-time Olympic veteran—a magnetic star and an offensive force who has grown with the developing Russian team.

    All eyes will be on Smolentseva as Russia strives to challenge for a medal.

Medal Favorites

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    While it's hoped that we'll see a more competitive Olympic tournament in Sochi, there are really only two teams that can challenge for gold:

     

    Team USA

    The Americans have the momentum going into Sochi after handling the Canadians comfortably during the pre-tournament tune-up games. The U.S. group is a crafty mix of savvy veterans and explosive newcomers who do not want to extend their country's Olympic gold medal drought to 16 years.

     

    Team Canada

    Despite their recent challenges, Team Canada is the three-time defending Olympic gold medalist, with every expectation of repeating as champion.

    Dan Church said he resigned as head coach because he didn't feel he had management's confidence that he'd bring home the gold; any other result would be unacceptable. 

    Team Canada has also added some new blood to its winning veteran core and will be bringing back 2010 Olympic top goaltender Shannon Szabados.

    If the women peak in Russia as planned, gold will return once again to the Great White North.

Predicting the MVP and All-Tournament Team

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    Sochi 2014 All-tournament Team Prediction:

    Forwards: Amanda Kessel (USA), Alex Carpenter (USA), Caroline Ouellette (Canada)

    Defense: Meaghan Mikkelson (Canada), Gigi Marvin (USA)

    Goal: Noora Raty (FIN)

     

    Sochi 2014 MVP Prediction: Amanda Kessel (USA)

Medal Prediction

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    Here are our medal predictions for the 2014 Olympic women's hockey tournament:



    Gold: USA

    Silver: Canada

    Bronze: Russia