It is no secret that the United States and Canada are the teams to beat heading into the women's hockey tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. They have combined to win four gold medals, three silvers and one bronze since the debut of women's hockey in the 1998 Nagano Games, and they have continued to thrive ever since.
Although it isn't totally inconceivable that a team like Finland could potentially play spoiler, it will be a major shock if Team USA and Canada don't make it to the gold-medal game. Due to the new format implemented to make the tournament more competitive, the United States and Canada will also meet in group play, so the bitter rivals will have seen enough of each other by the time the event comes to an end.
Canada is a slight favorite to win the tournament at 5-6, while Team USA is just behind at 1-1, according to Bovada. Canada has won gold in three straight Olympics, but the Americans enter Sochi having beaten Canada four consecutive times.
Here is Team USA's full schedule, along with predictions for how they will fare in Sochi as they vie for their second Olympic gold.
|Finland||Saturday, Feb. 8||3 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Switzerland||Monday, Feb. 10||5 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Canada||Wednesday, Feb. 12||7:30 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Quarterfinals (if necessary)||Saturday, Feb. 15||TBD||TBD|
|Semifinals (if necessary)||Monday, Feb. 17||TBD||TBD|
|Bronze-Medal Game (if necessary)||Thursday, Feb. 20||7 a.m.||NBCSN|
|Gold-Medal Game (if necessary)||Thursday, Feb. 20||12 p.m.||NBC|
Projected Team USA MVP: Jessie Vetter
It is often said in hockey that any team with a hot goaltender can thrive in a short tournament. That is what makes a team like Finland dangerous due to the presence of Noora Raty between the pipes.
While Raty may be the best female goalie in the world, Team USA's Jessie Vetter isn't far behind. The 28-year-old veteran is the most experienced of the American goalies, and she is seemingly in the driver's seat when it comes to landing the starting job.
With that said, Team USA head coach Katey Stone has yet to make a definitive selection in that regard. She may already know internally what she plans to do, but she doesn't intend to announce a starter between Vetter, Brianne McLaughlin and Molly Schaus until just prior to the United States' opening game against Finland, according to Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune.
They're all three elite goaltenders, that's for sure. Little bit different styles. The main thing for me is their consistency-- they're consistent in what they do. They present a lot of calm for everybody in front of them.
If nothing else, Vetter enters Sochi as the most talked-about goalie on the Team USA roster. That is due to controversy surrounding her goalie mask. It initially said "We the people" on the back of it as a nod to the United States Constitution, but she was forced to remove it by the International Olympic Committee, per Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports:
New Puck Daddy: Jessie Vetter’s Olympic goalie mask has U.S. Constitution removed by IOC http://t.co/oaQ5y0IOTY— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) January 16, 2014
Now that the drama is behind Vetter, she can focus on the task at hand. Assuming that Vetter is tabbed as the starter, Team USA's success will pretty much be in her hands. That is a lot of pressure, especially when two games against Canada are likely, but she is battle-tested and ready to rise to the occasion.
Team USA X-Factor: Amanda Kessel
If Vetter isn't Team USA's best player in Sochi, then 22-year-old forward Amanda Kessel very well could be. The younger sister of American men's hockey Olympian Phil Kessel is as dynamic as they come in the women's game, and she promises to be a key player during the tournament. The one caveat attached to Kessel, however, is that she enters the 2014 Winter Games with very little in-game preparation under her belt.
How will the United States women's hockey team fare in Sochi?
According to Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times, the University of Minnesota product missed Team USA's slate of games leading up to the Olympics due to a hip injury. Although she hasn't played a game since the spring, Kessel feels as though she is rounding into form.
"It's pretty good. It's getting there," Kessel said. "At this point I try not to focus on that. I'm here and can't do much about it at this point. I'm just trying to do everything I can and play the best I can."
When Kessel is at her best, she is arguably the best women's forward in the world. Her skill set is quite similar to that of her brother, and she will be leaned upon heavily. It remains to be seen how well she will settle back into the action, though. Because of that uncertainty, Kessel is the biggest X-factor among every team heading into Sochi.
Team USA Tournament Prediction
While it can be argued that the new format will make for a tougher road to the gold-medal game for Team USA, it also ensures that the Americans will be battle-tested by the time they reach the final contest.
With games against Finland, Switzerland and Canada in group play, the United States will be thrown right into the fire from jump street. Provided the Americans finish in the top two, they will then be just one win away from playing for gold.
Despite the fact that Team USA has been just as good as Canada over the years, it has fallen short in its bid to capture gold at the Olympics ever since 1998. That certainly isn't lost on United States captain Meghan Duggan, who is hoping that her team can take the next step in Sochi, according to Mike G. Morreale of NHL.com:
I think when you look at some of the players that played in Vancouver (in 2010) and the Olympic events before that, when you come up short it doesn't feel good, so we've prepared ourselves to win a gold medal. Obviously you have to take one game at a time and I feel we're prepared to do that.
Based on their current form, the Americans have no excuse to fall short of their ultimate goal this time around. They are stacked from top to bottom at every position, and while their games against Canada are going to be tight, physical affairs, Team USA currently has the mental edge over their neighbors to the north. Because of its recent success against Canada, the United States will finally break its Olympic gold medal drought in Sochi.
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