Canada, U.S. expected to battle for Olympic women's hockey supremacy in Beijing
Nations have swept the previous six gold medals
Since women's hockey was included at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Canada and the U.S. have competed in five of the last six finals, collectively winning all the gold medals — four for Canada, two for the Americans.
The two nations are once again expected to do battle for gold, but there remains intrigue with the other competing teams.
The Olympic hockey tournament begins Wednesday night (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 11 p.m. ET) and ends with the gold-medal final on Feb. 17.
Teams are split into two seeded groups, with the five top-ranked teams in Group A and the remaining squads in Group B. All five Group A teams automatically advance to the quarter-finals, where they'll face off in an eight-team bracket that includes the top three Group B finishers.
For viewers looking beyond Canada and the U.S., CBC Olympic reporter Kenzie Lalonde recommends keeping an eye on three international players: Finnish defender Jenni Hiirikoski, Swiss centre Alina Müller, and Czech forward Alena Mills.
Here is how the teams break down:
Favourites: Canada, USA
Canada enters the Olympics on top, having gone undefeated to win August's world championship, swept a three-game fall exhibition series against Finland, and claimed four of six preparatory meetings with the Americans (though two required overtime).
While it might sound cliché, Lalonde points to quick starts as key for the Canadians.
"[At worlds] they seemed to find their speed in the second period," she said. "I think it'll be critical for them to play that full 60 minutes and make sure they get goals on the scoreboard early."
The U.S. is the defending Olympic champion, and though Canada's had the upper hand this year, it hasn't been by much.
The Americans are carrying three goalies who all have Olympic experience. They also boast dynamic defenders and can roll four dangerous scoring lines.
"They'll be a fast team, a hard team," Lalonde said.
WATCH | Examining the Canada-USA on-ice rivalry:
Contenders: Finland, ROC, Switzerland
Finland is close behind the North Americans, and has proven it can beat them. Anything less than a medal would be a disappointment for the Finns; the question in Beijing will be the colour.
Lalonde considers Finland in a period of transition and will most likely play for bronze. Four-time Olympian goalie Noora Räty is a notable omission from the roster ― general manager Tuula Puputti said they're confident in 24-year-old Anni Keisala and felt Räty, a lifelong starter, wasn't suited to a backup role.
Müller missed most of the tournament with an injury sustained in the team's preliminary round matchup.
"With the ROC, those games are always chippy," Lalonde said, noting the Russians' propensity for taking penalties.
Shokhina, a prolific scorer for club and country, did not attend worlds. With the 200-foot presence of Müller and Shokhina's added scoring touch, both countries will aim for a medal in Beijing.
Dark horse: Czechia
Though the Czechs finished seventh in the final ranking at worlds, they're perhaps Finland's closest competition. The Finns have won all three of this season's meetings, but always by just one goal.
Unfortunately, Czechia's position in Group B means that it's doomed to face a top-3 Group A team in the quarter-finals.
The Czechs have the skill to compete for a medal, but the bracket won't make getting there easy.
The rest: Japan, Sweden, Denmark, China
Japan qualified to these Olympics directly through the world rankings, a huge feat for the developing program. The Japanese play a structured game and have recently begun to generate more offence against top competition, but they tend to rely on a shortened bench.
"I think they overplay their top lines," Lalonde said. "But Japan finds a way to win, and [goaltender Nana] Fujimoto helps them get to that point."
Swedes fall on hard times
Having been relegated from the 2019 world championship, the once-mighty Swedes booked their spot in Beijing through a last-chance qualifier. Positive pre-departure COVID-19 tests have left them without four members of their original roster, including starting goaltender Sara Grahn and star forward Hanna Olsson.
The Danes are competing in their first Olympics, after finishing last at top division worlds in the summer. Denmark has some top-end talent, such as forward Josefine Jakobsen, but likely lacks the depth needed to advance.
The host country's roster includes 10 players raised in China and 13 North Americans, most of whom have Chinese heritage. Though this is the new-look team's first international tournament, they've played some exhibitions, and most of the group spent the season together with the KRS Vanke Rays in Russia's women's hockey league.
China began the quadrennial with medal aspirations; making the knockout round a more realistic ambition.