Four teams in women's hockey Group B will take the ice on Sunday in their first action of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Canada and the U.S. flexed their muscles on Saturday, affirming their status as the bracket's favorites with big victories. In a more open grouping, Sweden, Japan, Russia and Germany can all start the tournament off right.
Under the new group formatting, Sweden and Russia were placed in Group B after ranking fifth and sixth, respectively, in 2012's world rankings. Germany and Japan qualified for the final two spots.
This group's top two teams will advance to face off against Group A's bottom two squads. Group A was purposefully stacked with the four best teams (Canada, U.S., Finland and Switzerland) so the two best countries earn an automatic trip to the semifinals.
But we're a long ways from that, so let's take a look at the day's two games, both of which are available for live streaming at NBCOlympics.com.
|Sweden vs. Japan||3 a.m.||NBC Sports|
|Germany vs. Russia||8 a.m.||MSNBC|
Sweden vs. Japan
Both fringe medal contenders, Sweden and Japan are playing with house money in Sochi.
Sweden, however, enters this match as the seemingly more experienced club. Since women's ice hockey became an Olympic sport in 1998, the country has finished no worse than fifth, earning the bronze in 2002 and silver in 2006.
Who will win?
On the other hand, Japan has not qualified since 1998, when it finished sixth during the event's inaugural tilt. That means nearly all of Yuji Iizuka's squad has yet to experience the Olympic platform. Japan's coach said it's crucial for his players to keep a calm frame of mind as they soak in the grand stage.
“Since this is the first Olympics for most of the players in the team, the most important thing is mental training so they don’t feel anxious or intimidated,” Iizuka told The Japan Times' Jack Gallagher.
Then again, only one player on Sweden's roster is older than 25 years old. Japan features nine such players, including Yoko Kondo, a member of the 1998 team.
While it's fair to then toss aside the experience concerns, Sweden still boasts the more talented group, which should be one of the two teams to survive Group B.
Prediction: Sweden 2, Japan 1
Russia vs. Germany
The hosting nation is the top team to watch from Group B.
Russia has never finished above fifth place, but that could change this year. After finishing third in the 2013 Women's World Championship, a bronze medal is in play.
The Star Tribune's Rachel Blount credited Minnesota Duluth coach Shannon Miller with reviving the Russian program after Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president at the time, warned that women's hockey program that “we cannot continue without improvement.”
Since Miller began advising the Russians, they have increased funding for women’s hockey, sent the team to train in Duluth for two weeks and won the bronze medal at last spring’s world championships. Several other nations have taken similar steps forward, and Miller said she expects to see even more progress in the years leading toward the next Winter Games.
For Russia to take the next step, it must defeat Germany, who has also failed to finish better than fifth in its three years of qualification. One of the keys to victory is the play of goalie Nadezhda Alexandrova, who propelled Russia to a bronze finish in the world championship.
Advancing to the Olympics is in itself an achievement for Germany, but Russia is on the upswing and ready to make noise with its home-field advantage. Expect a major victory on Sunday.
Prediction: Russia 3, Germany 0