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Vancouver Games hockey preview

SI.com's writers will preview each event from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Here's Sarah Kwak's look ahead to the women's hockey tournament.

Say what you will about the women's game -- no one will deny that it's slower and less physical than men's hockey -- but it isn't short on skill or dramatics. There may not be outright checking, but that doesn't negate all physicality, and if anything, it opens the ice to show off the growing supply of finesse and sharp shooting.

Seldom does the opening act live up to a headliner, but the women's hockey tournament could be just as enthralling, if not more so, than the men's tourney. When there are two teams as dominant as the U.S. and Canada, it essentially sets up a win-win situation. Think of it as Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal circa 2006-08. You expect they'll make the final, but you watch to make sure. And when the final is on, it's even better than you expected.

If Canada and the U.S. don't meet in the gold medal game, a monumental upset will have had to happen along the way. And well, if they do, everyone is assured a fantastic match. With all their shared history -- 12 World Championship finals and two Olympic gold medal games -- Canada and the U.S. have cultivated a healthy rivalry that plays out in each of their meetings.

And though the U.S. has faltered a bit in the lead-up to the Vancouver Games -- losing six meetings against Canada -- U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero, for one, isn't worried. "I think we've seen Canada play at their best," she says. "But I don't think they've seen us at our very best yet."

Hilary Knight, USA: The youngest player for Team USA is also its most dangerous. The 20-year-old winger led the team in scoring during its pre-Olympics Qwest Tour, and as a sophomore at Wisconsin last season, led the NCAA with 45 goals and 83 points. At 5-foot-11, she can easily carve out space near the crease, and her long reach makes her a constant scoring threat from almost every angle.

Hayley Wickenheiser, Canada: The most accomplished and well-known women's athlete in her country, the 31-year-old, four-time Olympian is still a scoring threat and the indisputable leader of her team. She has earned just about every accolade in the sport, including two Olympic tournament MVP awards, and now she has the honor of being Canada's captain in Vancouver.

Noora Räty, Finland: The goalie has the potential to steal a game single-handedly, much like she did against the U.S. in the first round of the Canada Cup in August. The platinum blonde made an otherworldly 49 saves as the Finns erased an early two-goal deficit to win 3-2. Though just 20, Räty is not short on experience. She was Finland's goalie at the '06 Games at the tender age of 16, and in her freshman season at Minnesota this year, she has a 14-2-4 record, seven shutouts, a .967 save percentage and a stunning 0.80 GAA.

Maria Rooth, Sweden: Recall the upset of Turin, when the Swedish team defeated the U.S. in a shootout in a semifinal game. It was Rooth who scored the two goals to tie the game in regulation and then clinched it with the shootout winner. She has the killer instinct, and if given space and time, can be a creative goal scorer and difference-maker.

The U.S. boasts plenty of firepower up front, with four-time Olympian Jenny Potter, pint-sized fireball Erika Lawler and captain Natalie Darwitz, who can speed through the neutral zone with ease and has a fine pair of hands. Their blue line, led by Ruggiero, has size and skill and can stifle the best forwards in the game. But the decisive factor in a U.S. win over Canada will rest on the quick skills of Jessie Vetter, the 24-year-old goalie who has three NCAA Championships with Wisconsin and who backstopped the Americans to World Championships in '08 and '09.

If you're already sick of the USA-Canada overkill, take a look at the potential battle for bronze. Again, barring an unforeseen upset, Finland and Sweden should compete for a place on the podium, and you can expect a battle between the pipes. Sweden's Kim Martin, 23, who earned a silver medal and best goalkeeper honors in Turin after famously stonewalling the Americans in the shootout, has a hefty international resume. The up-and-coming Räty is a fierce competitor with a swagger to match her impressive focus, and in the last two World Championships, she has led Finland to bronze-medal finishes.

Team USA coach Mark Johnson was the star of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team that upset the heavily favored Soviet team and won gold in Lake Placid. Nicknamed "Magic" during his playing days, Johnson has built an impressive coaching resume, leading the University of Wisconsin women's team to three national championships since '02.

Feb. 25

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