For the first time in 20 years, the U.S. women’s hockey team returns to the Olympic stage as the defending gold medalist. After dethroning archrival Canada in a shootout in 2018, Team USA heads to Beijing looking to start a new reign.
Will it be the North American powerhouses duking it out until the end once again? Or will a new country emerge to take home gold?
The women’s tournament kicks off Feb. 2 at 11:10 p.m. ET with a double feature of Canada vs. Switzerland and Czech Republic vs. China. But before the first pucks drop, here’s a breakdown of what to watch for in Beijing.
Who’s the favorite?
Since women’s hockey was added to the Winter Olympics in 1998, only the U.S. and Canada have claimed gold, with the Americans winning the first and most recent and the Canadians nabbing the four in between. That pattern is expected to continue.
The two sides will compete in the last game of pool play on Feb. 7 (11:10 p.m. ET) before knockout rounds begin. Should they both win out from there, it’ll be a gold medal rematch on Feb. 16 at 11:10 p.m. ET.
Tell me more about this rivalry…
Since the 2018 Olympics, Hockey Canada and Team USA have faced off numerous times, including a little Canadian redemption at the most recent IIHF World Championships. The Americans had won five straight heading into the '21 tournament, but Canada upset them 5–1 in a preliminary round game and ended the defending champs’ gold-medal streak with a 3–2 overtime win to end the tournament. Canada carried that over into an intracontinental rivalry series called the My Why Tour, winning four of six games against the U.S. (The series was originally supposed to be nine games, but was shortened due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in the winter.)
Looking strictly at wins and losses, Canada has the edge here. But digging deeper into the box scores and personnel shows things are actually pretty split. Of the eight games between these teams in the last six months, five of them were decided by just one score. And both squads are returning 13 skaters from their 2018 rosters with a healthy mix of 10 Olympic newbies per side.
Hilary Knight (who is competing in her fourth Olympics), Kendall Coyne Schofield, Amanda Kessel and Brianna Decker are some of the big names returning for Team USA. Of the first-timers, rising star Abby Roque is one to look out for on the offense, while 19-year-old Caroline Harvey could prove to be a core figure on a new-look defense for the Americans.
For Canada, all eyes are on Marie-Philip Poulin and Rebecca Johnston, who will both be making their fourth Olympic appearances. Poulin has scored three overtime goals in the last six months for Canada and already boasts two overtime goals in Olympic finals in her career. Needless to say, she’ll find her way on the scoresheet and expect it to come at an important moment. As for the newcomers, 21-year-old Sarah Fillier is the one to watch. She is the youngest player on the roster but is second to Poulin in scoring.
Are there any other contenders?
In addition to the U.S. and Canada, Finland, Switzerland and the Russian Olympic Committee round out Group A, with Czech Republic, Denmark, Japan, Sweden and host China in Group B.
As three-time bronze medalists, Finland is considered the most likely candidate to defy expectations and sneak into the gold-medal game. The Finns got a brief taste of success at the 2019 World Championship when it looked like they won gold in overtime, but the goal was ultimately overturned and the Americans won in a shootout. However, Finland will be without one of the game’s best goaltenders in Noora Räty, who was shockingly left off the Olympic roster, creating a bit of an unknown for this team heading into the Games.
Another team to keep an eye on in the medal race is the ROC. Losing to Finland in the bronze-medal game in 2018, the Russians consistently just miss the podium in big international tournaments, having won only two bronze medals at Worlds in the last decade and never reaching the podium at the Olympics. The ROC likely doesn’t stand a chance against Canada or the U.S. but could be in the mix for third depending on how the rest of the bracket shakes out.
How about a dark horse?
If you are an agent of chaos, your best bet here is probably Switzerland. Alina Müller had a breakout tournament in the 2018 Games and the Swiss took care of Group B in the preliminary rounds. That didn’t carry over to the knockout stage when ROC pounded them 6–2 in the quarterfinals, but Switzerland got redemption with an overtime win against the Russians at the '21 World Championship. Like so many teams in these games, Switzerland's success will largely depend on goaltending. Andrea Brändli, who plays for Ohio State, was the team’s biggest star throughout the '21 Worlds after Müller went down with an ankle injury, making a mind-boggling 181 saves throughout the tournament. If Brändli can bring that razzle dazzle to the crease in Beijing (and get some offensive support from her teammates), Switzerland could certainly keep things interesting.
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