SOCHI -- The Winter Olympics opening ceremonies may kick off on Friday, but select events, including men's and women's snowboarding slopestyle, start the day before, on Thursday. Here's a dozen storylines to follow as competition gets underway in Sochi.
1. Russian hockey. Is anyone under greater pressure to deliver a gold medal in Sochi than the Russian men's hockey team? This was once perhaps the greatest dynasty in the Winter Olympics; Soviet hockey teams and their subsequent offshoots -- Russia and the Unified Team -- won eight gold medals at 10 Olympics. The only two blips on the radar came at the 1960 and 1980 Olympics, both of which were held in the U.S. and won by the U.S. team (Miracle on Ice, anyone?). Since then, the Russians have fallen considerably, taking one silver and one bronze medal, but no golds over the last five Olympics. With some of the world's top players, including Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk, on this year's roster, the Russians face enormous pressure to return to glory at home.
2. The Tomato is back. Shaun White is back to defend his Olympic title in the halfpipe. The two-time Olympic champion will only have to worry about defending his halfpipe title now that he has announced his withdrawal from the slopestyle competition. White took some harsh criticism from some of his fellow slopestyle competitors who said he only pulled out because he realized he wasn't going to win and not necessarily because the course appeared to be too dangerous. If anything, The Flying Tomato, who always seems to respond well to pressure, should be ready to fly even higher in the halfpipe.
KWAK: White withdraws from slopestyle event, citing 'the potential risk of injury'
3. U.S.-Canada rivalry No. 1. For the past four years, Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have been fighting off a strong charge from their American rivals Meryl Davis and Charlie White. The Canadians won the 2010 Olympics in front of their home crowd in Vancouver four years ago, and won the 2010 World title shortly after. Since then, Davis and White won the world title in 2011 and 2013, while Virtue and Moir reclaimed it in 2012. Each time, the non-winning team took silver. Both couples handily won national titles this season, leading to another Olympic showdown between the sultry Canadians and the energetic Americans.
4. U.S.-Canada rivalry No. 2. No event final seems as certain as a U.S.-Canada showdown in women's ice hockey. The two teams have met in the final game of all 15 world championships and three of the last four Olympic Games in which the event was held (Sweden pulled a surprise upset against the U.S. in the semifinals in 2006). At the 2010 Games, Marie-Philip Poulin scored twice and Shannon Szabados made 28 saves in a 2-0 Canadian victory. The rivalry has become so heated that the players paired up in a line brawl during an exhibition game in Grand Forks, N.D. in December. Even if the sticks stay down in Sochi, the stakes could not be higher.
5. Shani times three. U.S. long track star Shani Davis has been at the top of the speedskating world for a decade as one of the sport's most decorated and versatile performers. He's stronger than ever as he tries to pull a three-peat at 1000 meters, and he'll also be a medal threat in the 1500, an event in which he missed out on gold the last two Olympics by a total of .69 seconds. On top of that, he will reportedly make himself available for the team pursuit competition as well -- he passed on that event at the last two Olympics to concentrate on individual events.
6. All-timer. The name Ole-Einar Bjorndalen may not roll off the tongues of U.S. Olympic viewers, but the 40-year-old Norwegian biathlete is chasing history in Sochi, where could become the all-time medal leader at the Winter Games. To date he has won 11 Olympic medals, including six golds over four previous Olympics. His countryman Bjorn Daehlie stands at the top with 12 medals to date. Bjorndalen has won Olympic medals in every race within his sport (sprint, pursuit, individual, mass start and relay) and will have an additional mixed relay event that was added to the program this year in which to chase his place in history.
7. Super sledder. Steven Holcomb made history in Vancouver, guiding the U.S. four-man Night Train sled to the country's first gold medal in men's bobsledding since 1948. Holcomb is back, piloting a new sled designed by BMW as he aims to defend his title. He will also attempt to capture the men's team's first crown in the two-man event since 1936. Between the two events, Holcomb and his crews have won nine of 16 races this season, leaving the U.S. sleds in very capable hands. Holcomb remains a compelling story off the track, too, having overcome an eye disease that nearly left him blind five year ago. The doctor who performed the sight-saving procedure renamed his procedure The Holcomb in the star sledder's honor.
SMORODINSKAYA: New sleds the key to U.S. hopes for bobsled gold in Sochi
8. The new Vonn. No Lindsey Vonn? No worries. Mikaela Shiffrin is poised to establish herself as the new star of the U.S. women's ski team. The 18-year old from Vail is the world champion and world-cup winner in slalom, an event in which she's favored to bring home gold in Sochi, and she'll also have a chance at a medal in the giant slalom. Shiffrin has been a fast learner. The daughter of competitive skiers made her world-cup debut at 15, won her first national title at 16 and captured a World Cup event in Are, Sweden at 17.
9. Terrific Ted. It would be difficult for Ted Ligety to repeat his triumphant performance at the world championships last year, where he won gold medals in the combined, giant slalom and super-G in Schladming, Germany. Though the GS has become his bread and butter event, he has also won World Cup medals in slalom, a fourth discipline. Given Ligety's ability to ski well across several disciplines, a repeat performance could lift him up among some of the Games' greats. An added bonus, he's among the ski circuit's better spoken and at times more outspoken athletes, often taking a stand about restrictions on ski design imposed by the international federation.
10. Cross purposes. The U.S. has never won a gold medal in cross-country skiing at an Olympic Games, but after several years of success on the world cup circuit, Alaska's Kikkan Randall could be the one to break the slump. Randall won silver in the individual sprint at the world championships in 2009 and took gold in the team sprint at the world championships last year, when she also won five world-cup races. She placed first in the overall sprint standings in 2013. She'll likely face a tough challenge from several foes including Germany's Denise Herrmann and Norwegian legend Marit Bjorgen.
11. A Better Berger. The top medal winner at these Games could also come from the Norwegian biathlon team. Tora Berger won four gold and two silver medals at the world championships last season and has been among the leaders in three of the four individual events all season. The 32-year old says she plans to retire after the Sochi Olympics, which would leave her at the top of her sport as she tries to ski and shoot her way into history. Berger could become the first athlete to win six medals at a single winter Olympics.
12. Team Skating. Figure skating is always among the most popular events at the Winter games and this year a team event -- starting a day before the opening ceremonies -- will appear on the Olympic schedule for the first time. The event will rank one skaters from ten teams based on short program scores in each of the four disciplines (men, ladies, pairs and dance) with the top five teams advancing to a round of long programs. The teams may make two switches of skaters from the first round to the second, creating a competition that rewards strategy and consistency. Look for the U.S. to challenge Canada and Russia for the medals.