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2018 Olympic preview: Meet Group A

A primer on Team USA, Team Canada, Team Finland and the Olympic Athletes from Russia.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 13 - Canada v United States Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The defending gold medalists, the current world champions, the team that hopes it can be a spoiler and a team tarnished by scandal. These four teams have the best chance to medal in the tournament. Of course “best chance” is never a guarantee and if they fall, these teams could fall hard.

Canada

2014 Olympics: Gold, 14 players returning
World Ranking: Second
2017 World Championships: Silver
Game to watch: Canada vs USA, Wed Feb 14 10:10 pm EST, CBC, NBCSN
Players to watch: Marie-Philip Poulin, Meghan Agosta, Mélodie Daoust, Natalie Spooner, Brianne Jenner, Jillian Saulnier, Rebecca Johnston, Laura Fortino, Renata Fast, Meaghan Mikkelson, Jennifer Wakefield
Rookies: Sarah Nurse

It’s hard to not see Canada as the underdog coming into the Olympics, which sounds hilarious on the face of it, because Canada. Still, the last time Canada won a major international tournament was the 2014 Four Nations cup—the US has won every World Championship and Four Nations since. Many of those games were close, and OT has become a nauseatingly familiar sight in US-Canada gold medal games, but on paper? They’ve almost exclusively collected silver medals since Sochi.

The good signs for Canada? They beat the US in five out of their six pre-tournament friendlies (Four Nations excluded), proving that recent championship record or not, this is a team that is more than capable of winning against the US. After a surprising loss to Finland at the 2017 Worlds, they tinkered with their lineup, altered some tactics, and dispatched the remaining non-American teams with ease. As a point of fact, since that 4-3 loss to Finland, the only team to score on Canada at either Worlds or Four Nations has been the US—they’ve blanked Russia, Sweden, and Finland twice.

In the pre-Olympic games, Canada’s offense looked more lethal than it has in a while. Look for Brianne Jenner, Rebecca Johnston, and Jillian Saulnier to be reunited as the “Inferno line”—the three of them play together in Calgary, and pre-existing chemistry is easy to exploit. If there’s an obvious weakness for Canada, it’s on defense. In a pre-Olympic friendly against Switzerland, Canada ran a top pair of Laura Fortino and Renata Fast, which has the potential to be really exciting or make me wince a whole lot.

USA

2014 Olympics: Silver, 10 players returning
World Ranking: First
2017 World Championships: Gold
Game to watch: USA vs Canada, Wed Feb 14 10:10 pm EST, NBCSN, CBC
Players to watch: Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, Kendall Coyne, Emily Pfalzer, Amanda Kessel, Alex Rigsby, Nicole Hensley, Maddie Rooney
Rookies: Cayla Barnes, Sidney Morin

Team USA went into pre-Olympic centralization from a position of strength. Over the past four years, the same core group of players won pretty much everything they set their caps for, including fighting USA Hockey for fair compensation and equitable program development. Some of that sense of overwhelming dominance has slipped away over the course of centralization, with uneven performances against Canada and shocking roster moves (including cutting program stalwarts like Megan Bozek, Alex Carpenter, and Kelli Stack) making this team seem like less of a juggernaut.

Make no mistake, they can still destroy you. There isn’t a better line in women’s hockey than Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker, and Kendall Coyne. They have a defense based on mobility and speed, and players like Emily Pfalzer are legitimate scoring threats themselves. None of their three goaltenders are at Shannon Szabados’s level (virtually no one not named Noora is), but Alex Rigsby and Nicole Hensley are both very competent, and Maddie Rooney is the calmest 20-year-old out there. The question is which Team USA will show up in Pyeongchang: the team that ran over Canada in the Four Nations medal game, or the team I watched lay down for that same Canadian team in Boston?

Finland

2014 Olympics: Fifth place, 13 players returning
World Ranking: Third
2017 World Championships: Bronze
Game to watch: Finland vs Canada, Tues Feb 13 2:40 am EST
Players to watch: Noora Räty, Jenni Hiirikoski, Petra Nieminen, Susanna Tapani, Riikkä Valilä, Linda Välimäki, Michelle Karvinen
Rookies: None

A team with Noora Räty and Jenni Hiirikoski is not a team to be dismissed easily. Depending on who you talk to, Noora Räty is either the number one or number two women’s hockey goalie in the world, and Hiirikoski has been named Best Defender at every World Championships since 2012, and a few before that to boot. They’ve also got offensive players like Susanna Tapani, who has won medals for Finland in three different sports (ice hockey, inline hockey, and ringette) and shone at 2017 Worlds. Michelle Karvinen, Finland’s leading scorer from Sochi, is another big name on their forward corps.

Finland’s upset of Canada in the preliminary round at the 2017 World Championships in Plymouth grabbed the attention of a lot of people. They’ve been fairly dominant in tournaments this year, but they haven’t managed to repeat that win and they still haven’t beaten the US. At the Nations Cup tournament in Füssen, Germany this January they also lost to a Team Russia lineup that included all but one of the members of Team OAR. It was a close game, but the message here is that Finland will need to fight to earn a place on the podium. They can do it, but they can’t take their foot off the pedal, either.

Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR)

2014 Olympics: Sixth place, 6 players returning
World Ranking: Fourth
2017 World Championships: Fifth place
Game to watch: Finland vs OAR, Thurs Feb 15 2:40 am EST, USA Network, TSN2
Players to watch: Anna Shokhina, Olga Sosina, Lyudmila Belyakova, Yelena Dergachyova, Alevtina Shtaryova, Nadezhda Alexandrova and Nadezhda Morozova
Rookies: Diana Kanayeva, Viktoria Kulishova, Alyona Starovoitova

No one really knows what to expect from the Olympic Athletes from Russia (yes, the name is kind of absurd and we’ll probably drop it sometime during our coverage but for the moment it kind of amuses us). While the bans handed down by the IOC after the initial findings around the Sochi doping scandal haven’t exactly decimated Team Russia, there’s no denying that this isn’t the same team that rolled over the NWHL in October.

They have some excellent offensive weapons in players like Anna Shokhina, Olga Sosina, and Lyudmila Belyakova, and both Nadezhda Alexandrova and Nadezhda Morozova are decent goalies. However, only three of their team were even born in the 80s—their top line of Shokhina, Yelena Dergachyova and Alevtina Shtaryova is barely legal to drink in the US! (The fact that two of them are Sochi veterans just makes it more impressive.) This is the youngest team in the competition, with an average age of 22.17. They are also bringing back just six veterans from Sochi. They finished in sixth place in Sochi though, so that might be to their advantage.

Another reason for hope would be that Team Russia won the Nations Cup in January with a lineup that included all but one of the members of Team OAR. Still, since Worlds the Russians haven’t played anyone in Group A except Finland and in three meetings they have a record of one win and two losses. They’ve also had several very close games against Japan, and lost to them 2-1 in their most recent meeting. So Team OAR is our wild card - they could end up on the podium, but they could also find themselves in sixth place once again.

Group A round robin schedule

DATE TIME TEAMS TV
DATE TIME TEAMS TV
Sun 11 Feb 2:40 AM EST FIN  vs  USA TSN, NBCSN
Sun 11 Feb 7:10 AM EST CAN  vs  OAR USA Network, CBC
Tues 13 Feb 2:40 AM EST CAN  vs  FIN NBCSN, CBC
Tues 13 Feb 7:10 AM EST USA  vs  OAR NBCSN, CBC
Wed 14 Feb 10:10 PM EST USA  vs  CAN NBCSN, CBC
Thurs 15 Feb 2:40 AM EST OAR  vs  FIN USA Network, TSN2

How to watch and tournament format | Group B