Four women's ice hockey teams will fight for spots in the Winter Olympics gold-medal game during Monday's semifinal matches.
Heading into the tournament, Canada and the United States generated strong buzz as the heavy favorites to collide in the final bout. As the Olympic action winds down, little has occurred to change that thought.
The new format helped expedite the process, as the U.S. and Canada were guaranteed automatic semifinal bids after surviving Group A, which featured the top four seeded squads.
While the two titans received extra preparation time, Sweden and Switzerland fought their way to the final four during Saturday's quarterfinals. Sweden fired past Finland in a 4-2 victory while the Swiss shut out a dangerous Russian club by a score of 2-0.
Crazier things have happened, so let's take a closer look at each bout before conjuring up a U.S.-Canada championship showdown.
|Feb. 17||United States vs. Sweden||7 a.m.||NBC Sports Network|
|Feb. 17||Canada vs. Switzerland||12 p.m.||MSNBC|
Both games are available for live streaming at NBCOlympics.com.
United States vs. Sweden
The U.S. will enter Monday having not won a game in the last six days.
Team USA only played twice during that stretch, losing a tightly contented tilt against their rivals up north.
While the new seeding system created better competition and a quicker path for the two top teams, it could also cause some rust due to a long layoff. Like an NFL team that rests its starters before receiving a free pass in the opening round, the U.S. will have to stay sharp to avoid a letdown.
Of course, the Americans scored 12 goals during their other two preliminary matches, including nine against a Swiss squad that will now at least compete for a bronze medal.
On the other side, Sweden was not expected to make it this far. Its match with Finland, the third seed and bronze favorite entering the tournament, expected to draw a conclusion to any chances of medaling.
Yet Sweden tossed Finland around in a physically grueling game, avenging an overtime loss in 2010's bronze-medal match. Even after that match, assistant coach Leif Boork conceded that Finland touts the more talented roster, per The Associated Press (via USA Today Sports):
We are not a fancy team; Finland is much more skilled than us...But as you all know you can win games in different ways. Good character and hard work can do that, and today it was our time to do that.
If Finland is much more skilled than Sweden, the U.S. is much, much more skilled than its semifinal opponent. Falling short to Canada should not hinder Team USA's chances of orchestrating a rematch with gold on the line.
Canada vs. Switzerland
After getting roughed up in the preliminary stage, Switzerland has a chance for redemption against a team that is far superior on paper.
When these two nations met on Feb. 8, Canada trounced its overmatched opposition in a 5-0 shootout. Goalie Charline Labonte successfully saved 14 shots during the blowout.
Charline Labonté gets the shutout as Canada's women's hockey team beats Switzerland 5-0. #Sochi2014— NBC Olympic Hockey (@NHLonNBCSports) February 8, 2014
Hayley Wickenheiser, who has played in every Olympic event since hockey was added in 1998, enhanced her record by scoring her 17th career Olympic goal during the onslaught.
The least encouraging part of that game is how the Swiss were encouraged to only lose by five. Goalie Florence Schelling, who was busy all game fending off Canada's relentless attack, viewed the defeat as progress.
"It's the best result we've ever had against Canada," Schelling said to the AP's Jimmy Golen. "It shows we have improved."
In that case, only suffering a 3-0 defeat at the hands of the Canadian juggernaut would show some monumental strides for a country that has never earned a medal in the event.