Day 1 of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia featured the four top women's hockey teams in the world competing for Group A supremacy, and it became abundantly clear that the United States and Canada are still the class of the sport.
The new women's hockey format has shaken things up a bit in hopes that the games will be more competitive. Although Team USA and Canada were both dominant, that mission was accomplished as their overall margin of victory was a respectable seven goals.
All four teams in Group A will move on to the next round no matter what, with the top two finishers receiving byes into the semifinals and assuring themselves a chance to play for an Olympic medal.
All signs point to the United States and Canada earning those automatic berths regardless of what happens when they meet in group play.
Here is a complete breakdown of how every Group A team fared on Friday, along with an updated look at the women's hockey standings in Sochi.
USA vs. Finland
If there is one dark-horse team that can potentially spoil the USA vs. Canada final that everyone is expecting, it is certainly world No. 3 Finland. After beating the United States in the Four Nations Cup back in November, the Finns entered Sochi with a certain level of bravado. Finland was able to keep the score close, but Team USA's offensive onslaught was ultimately too much as the Americans scored a 3-1 victory.
Despite the final margin of just two goals, the United States was in control from the opening whistle. According to Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports, Hilary Knight capitalized on a Finnish mistake and put Team USA on top less than a minute into the contest:
Knight picked up her second point of the game nearly eight minutes into the second period as she set up Kelli Stack to put Team USA on top by two. The United States then netted its first and only power-play marker of the contest in four opportunities eight minutes later when Alex Carpenter beat Finnish goalie Noora Raty from a difficult angle.
Finland broke up American Jessie Vetter's shutout bid with less than five minutes remaining in the game when Susanna Tapani scored a power-play tally, but it was too little, too late for the Finns as Team USA came out on top 3-1 to open the women's hockey tournament in Sochi.
The scoreboard didn't tell the entire story, but the United States was dominant in outshooting Finland by a substantial margin, according to Kenny Albert of Fox Sports:
Raty was the difference when Finland beat the United States in November as she stood on her head to the tune of 58 saves. Raty, who may very well be the best female goaltender in the world, was very solid once again on Friday. She made 40 saves, but Team USA's barrage was just too much, and one goal of support wasn't going to get the job done on this day.
Relentlessness was the name of the game for Team USA on Friday, and Stack's plan was to pepper Raty with as many shots as possible, per Kevin Allen of USA TODAY.
I told my teammates she is going to stop the first shot for sure, unless you are Hilary Knight and then it's going to go in. But the rebounds are going to go in and the deflections are going to go in.
This may not be Finland's final shot at Team USA as they could meet again in the semifinals or even the finals if an upset occurs. Even after the tournament-opening win, the Americans will have to be wary of Raty, who kept Finland in a game that it had no business keeping close.
Canada vs. Switzerland
There are still several games left to be played, but the narrative of a USA vs. Canada final gained even more fuel on Friday as the three-time defending gold medalist Canadians opened with a 5-0 win over Switzerland. Like the United States, Canada's margin of victory didn't do its dominance justice.
The Canadians were in control from the opening faceoff, and it didn't take long for them to gain the advantage. Jocelyne Larocque made her presence felt in her Olympic debut by giving Canada a 1-0 lead just one minute, 25 seconds into the game, according to Joe Pascucci of Global News.
Canada technically didn't need to score another goal all game long, since that held up as the game winner, but the Canadians were extremely aggressive and gave Switzerland everything it could handle.
Tara Watchorn gave Canada a 2-0 lead in the first, but despite Canada's 29 shots on goal in the opening stanza, that was all it could muster from a goal-scoring standpoint.
Canada continued to push the pace in the second period, and it was rewarded with three more goals. Five-time Winter Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser, 2010 gold-medal game hero Marie-Philip Poulin and Rebecca Johnston all beat Swiss goalie Florence Schelling in the second frame, and that concluded the scoring as nobody found the back of the net in the third.
Even though she allowed five goals, Schelling was the most impressive player in this contest. Canadian goalie Charline Labonte came away with a shutout; however, Schelling made an incredible 64 saves on a Canadian team that never stopped pushing forward, per Donna Spencer of The Canadian Press:
Aside from Finland's Raty, Schelling may be the best female goaltender in this tournament, and she showed why in a valiant effort against Canada.
This loss puts Switzerland in a position where it will almost certainly have to win a quarterfinal game in order to play for a medal, but Schelling's performance had to make other contending teams take notice.
Ultimately, this game was all about Canada matching Team USA's hot start, and it did precisely that.
|Women's Hockey Olympic Standings|
|Group A||Pts||Group B||Pts|
|1. Canada||3||1. Sweden||0|
|2. USA||3||2. Japan||0|
|3. Finland||0||3. Russia||0|
|4. Switzerland||0||4. Germany||0|
There were no surprises on Day 1 as the United States and Canada occupy the top two spots in Group A. The expectation is that Team USA will beat Switzerland and Canada will defeat Finland, so the group will likely come down to USA vs. Canada on Feb. 11.
The winner of that potential gold-medal game preview will have the easier matchup in the semifinals, but both will be heavily favored to make the final game no matter what happens in their group clash.
Group B will get underway on Feb. 9 with Sweden and host Russia favored to make the quarterfinal round. Assuming they meet Finland and Switzerland, those should be some highly competitive matchups as the other teams jockey for position behind USA and Canada.
Whatever the case, the 2014 Olympic women's hockey tournament is already in line to be the most exciting one of all time.
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