What to watch for at the Olympics: Friday, Feb. 21

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SOCHI -- My colleague Michael Farber put it best on Thursday: Canada is favored because it is, well, Canada. That has been the truism of the Olympic hockey rivalry between the United States and the skating power up north. No teams have met more in the history of men’s Olympic hockey and in the 17 meetings between the two countries, Canada has won 11 times, including the gold-medal game four years ago in Vancouver when Sidney Crosby scored what is now known as the Golden Goal (at least above the 49th parallel).

“Since 1980 the Olympics has been Bridesmaid Revisited for Team USA,” Farber writes. “You do not get to accessorize with a gold medal. Yes, you are overtime close in 2010 and if you are David Backes, you brood and hurt and don’t figure out until summer that winning an Olympic silver medal is an impressive achievement. But you hold on to the realization that you can, and did, trump Canada in the Vancouver round robin.”

“We won the wrong game, you might say,” Backes said. “We took a great step in winning that prelim game to assert ourselves on a more level playing field. But until we get that finish where we step above them in the final results, the underdog role is what we’ll take.”

The underdog tag can get removed today when the teams renew their Olympic rivalry in the semifinal round of the men’s hockey tournament. Team USA has been far and away the better team in Sochi, crushing the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals while Canada slogged its way to a 2-1 win over Latvia to get here. The game will air at noon ET in the States (live on NBCSN across all time zones) and let’s hope it lives up to the one the women of each nation played on Thursday night. The men’s semifinal is the highlight of a day (in North America, at least) where medals will also be awarded in alpine skiing (women’s slalom), biathlon (4x6km relay), curling (men’s), freestyle skiing (women’s ski cross), and short track (men’s 500, women’s 1,000, men’s 5,000 relay).

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What to watch (all times in Eastern Standard Time)

• FREESTYLE SKIING: The women’s ski cross at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park closes out the Olympic freestyle program, and the final event looks to be a four-way battle between Canada's Marielle Thompson, Switzerland’s Katrin Mueller and Fanny Smith, and France’s Ophelie David. Thompson has two wins and seven top-five finishes during the current world cup season, Smith is the 2012-13 overall ski cross World Cup winner while Mueller is second overall in 2013-14. If David, 37, wins the gold, she’ll become one of the oldest women to win an Olympic Winter Games gold medal. The final is set for 5:41 a.m.

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• MEN’S HOCKEY: Both Canada and the U.S. are undefeated in this tournament, though Canada barely squeaked by Latvia in the quarterfinals. The U.S. has looked strong behind the tournament’s leading scorer Phil Kessel (five goals and three assists) and has outscored its opponents 20-5.

The opening semifinal features Sweden and Finland (7:00 a.m.), a rematch of last year’s semifinal in the World Championships won by Sweden. The Swedes are led by goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist, who stars in the NHL for the New York Rangers and has the highest save percentage of any goalkeeper left in the tournament, stopping 94.85 percent of shots he has faced. Sweden is undefeated in the tournament with wins over Czech Republic, Switzerland, Latvia, and Slovenia.

Finland advanced to the semifinals after an impressive win over host nation Russia in the quarterfinals. It is the only team left that has lost a game (Canada defeated them 2-1 in the preliminary round.) Finland has more non-NHL players on its roster than any team left in the tournament. Eleven players on the Finnish roster play in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League or other European leagues.

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• ALPINE SKIING: Mikaela Shiffrin, the 18-year-old American prodigy who has been called the Mozart of skiing, is the favorite to win the gold medal in women’s slalom. (The first run is set for 7:45 a.m., the final run set for 11:15 a.m.) If Shriffin wins at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, she will become the youngest U.S. Alpine medalist in history, and the youngest Olympic slalom champion of either gender, at 18 years and 345 days. Prior to the Sochi Games, SI’s Tim Layden wrote a profile of her that will have you prepped for today’s race.

Those challenging Shiffrin will include Slovenia’s Tina Maze; Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, who won this race four years ago in Vancouver and is attempting to become the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic slalom titles; Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter and Maria Pietilae-Holmner; and Austria’s Marlies Schild, whose 35 World Cup slalom wins are the most by any alpine female skier in history. If Schild wins a medal, she will become the first female skier to win an Olympic slalom medal at three successive Games. (She won bronze at Turin and silver at Vancouver.) Schild would also be the oldest Olympic slalom champion of either gender, at age 32 years and 266 days. If Maze wins the slalom, she will have won a third gold medal at Sochi 2014.

• CURLING: With the women's team defeating Sweden on Thursday, Canada can become the first nation to sweep men's and women's curling gold. The Canadian men play Great Britain in the men’s gold medal game (8:30 a.m.) today. Since curling returned to the Olympic program, Canada has made every men’s final and has won the last three gold medals. China plays Sweden for the bronze medal (3:30 a.m.)

• LONG-TRACK SPEEDSKATING: Men’s and women’s qualifying in the team pursuit take place today at Adler Arena (8:30 a.m.-10:25 a.m.) with – of course --- the Dutch favored in both races. The headliner on the women’s side is Dutch star Ireen Wust, who can win a fifth medal in Sochi on Saturday and become the 10th person – and the fifth speed skater, behind Norway’s Roald Larsen (1924), Finland’s Clas Thunberg (1924), American Eric Heiden (1980) and Canada’s Cindy Klassen (2006) – to win five medals in a single Winter Games. Wust has won gold in the 3,000 and silver in the 1,000, 1,500 and 5,000 in Sochi. Only Heiden (five golds) and Unified Team cross country skier Lyubov Yegorov (three golds and two silver in 1992) have won five medals at one Winter Games that were all gold or silver.

The Dutch men are the favorite in the men's team pursuit, with Korea, Poland, Norway and Canada also medal contenders. Sven Kramer (gold in the 5,000 and silver in the 10,000) and Jorrit Bergsma (bronze in the 5,000 and gold in the 10,000) will compete for the Dutch. If the United States does not medal in either the men's or ladies team pursuit, it will be the first time since 1984 that the Americans failed to win a medal in speed skating at the Olympics.

• BIATHLON: Norway is the team to watch in the women's 4x6km biathlon relay (9:30 a.m.) after winning the mixed relay behind star Tora Berger. The Russians are also a medal threat with Olga Zaitseva, who was a member of the Russian relay teams that won gold in 2006 and 2010. Zaitseva can become the first woman to win three gold medals in a single event in biathlon. Ukraine is a contender thanks to the pair of Valj Semerenko and Vira Semerenko, and Belarus is led by star Darya Domracheva, who has won three gold medals in Sochi, including women’s 10km Pursuit, women’s 15km Individual, and women’s 12.5km Mass Start.

• SHORT TRACK: Three gold medals will be handed out at the Iceberg Skating Palace. First up is the men’s 500, where the podium threats are Russia’s Victor Ahn and Vladimir Grigorev, China’s Wu Dajing and Canada’s Oliver Jean. Pre-race favorite Charles Hamelin of Canada crashed in the preliminary race and did not make the quarterfinals. J.R. Celski is the best hope for the U.S. The South Korean-born Ahn has already won gold in the men’s 1,000 and bronze in the 1,500 in Sochi. He is the first short track skater to win four gold medals in his career.

The women’s 1,000 favorites are South Koreans Shim Suk-hee, Park Seung-hi and Kim Alang, Arianna Fontana of Italy, Li Jianrou and Fan Kexin of China, and Elise Christie of Britain. Emily Scott and Jessica Smith will race for the U.S. In the men’s 5,000 relay, Canada, the current world record holder in the event, failed to qualify for the final after crashing in the prelims. The final will include China, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Russia, and the U.S., which advanced after colliding with Korea. The competition runs from 11:30 a.m.-1:45 p.m. and starts with the men’s 500 quarterfinals.

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By the numbers

41 -- Career Olympic points for Teemu Selanne, the most of any hockey player.

10 -- Individual speed skating events the Netherlands has won a medal in during the Sochi Games, tying the record for medals by a country within one sport at a single Winter Games (10 by Norway in cross country skiing in 2002).

5 -- Career medals won by Italian short track skater Arianna Fontana, one medal away from tying the women's short track mark of six set by Wang Meng of China.

4 -- Medals in Sochi for Great Britain, the best performance by the country at a Winter Olympics since the inaugural Winter Olympics in 1924.

Around the web

The five stories from Sochi you’ll be talking about on Friday:

U.S. Speedskating's Problems in Sochi Illuminate Organizational Dysfunction (By Gary D’Amato, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) -- An in-depth examination of why and what went wrong for the U.S. speedskating team in Sochi.

Putin Scores With Sochi Miracle (By Sergei Markov, The Moscow Times) -- Says the writer: The votes are in: Putin has scored a victory with Sochi.

Ever-diligent Bjoerndalen becomes most decorated Winter Olympian (By Alex Wolff, SI.com)-- On biathlete Ole-Einar Bjoerndalen, and how cultivating neuroses can make for the most successful Winter Olympian of all time.

My Olympic story: chasing dreams, overcoming odds, and finding joy (By Maria Lamb, marialamb.com) -- The U.S. speedskater writes on her blog about the struggles of the U.S. team and finding victory in her own personal journey in Sochi.

Capitals hope Olympic disappointment won’t negatively affect Alex Ovechkin (By Katie Carrera, Washington Post) -- How will Olympic disappointment impact the NHL’s top scorer?