HANDICAPPING THE WOMEN'S FIELD
GOLD MEDAL UNITED STATES
It now seems like ages ago when the U.S. won the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. That marked the debut of women's hockey at the Winter Games, and the Americans have not reached the top of the medal stand since. This time, they will send a roster of young, speedy and highly skilled players who say that anything less than gold would be a major disappointment. After an upset loss to Finland in November, the U.S. won five consecutive international games — including four in a row over archrival Canada — and outscored its opponents 23-7. Of the 21 players on the Olympic roster, 18 were on the team that defeated Canada for the gold medal in last spring's world championships, marking the Americans' fourth title in the past five years.
Who to watch: Gophers forward Amanda Kessel sat out the entire international season because of a lower-body injury but is expected to be at full strength in Sochi. She's likely to team with Brianna Decker and Kendall Coyne on a line that has been called the fastest in the world. Goaltenders Jessie Vetter and Molly Schaus have been equally solid.
History: Since Nagano, the Americans have lost to Canada in the gold medal game in 2002 and 2010 and won bronze in '06.
SILVER MEDAL CANADA
Five-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser will carry Canada's flag in the Opening Ceremony. But can she carry her team to a fourth consecutive gold medal? In the nation that invented the game, the unrelenting pressure to win already has claimed coach Dan Church, who quit in December and was replaced by former NHL player and coach Kevin Dineen. Wickenheiser also has been replaced as captain, by former Minnesota Duluth forward Caroline Ouellette. Canada is 4-3-1 in international play this season and went 11-18 against midget boys' teams. The disarray — and a 1-10 record since Church's departure — has put a rare hitch in Canada's swagger.
Who to watch: The three oldest players on the team — Wickenheiser (35), Ouellette (34) and Jayna Hefford (36) — are among its top four scorers. Forward Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored both goals in the 2010 gold medal victory over the U.S., has missed several games because of an injury but remains one of Canada's most dynamic players when healthy.
History: Canada has not lost a game at the Olympics since falling to the Americans in the gold medal game in 1998.
BRONZE MEDAL FINLAND
The Finns remain a notch below the U.S. and Canada in the hierarchy of women's hockey, but they have been the most consistent of any of the nations in that second tier. Former Gophers goaltender Noora Raty, who owns NCAA records for victories (114) and shutouts (43), is the major reason why they are favored to win their third Olympic medal. Raty stopped 58 shots in an upset of the U.S. at the Four Nations Cup in November. Over the 14-year history of the women's world championships, Finland has won 10 bronze medals and finished fourth in its other four appearances.
Who to watch: Raty may be the best goaltender in the tournament. Her former Gophers teammate, 6-foot defenseman Mira Jalosuo, currently plays pro hockey in Russia and is an experienced international player. Other current and former WCHA players on Finland's roster include Michelle Karvinen and Susanna Tapani (North Dakota), Nina Tikkinen (Minnesota State Mankato) and Tea Villila (UMD).
History: Finland won Olympic bronze in 1998 and 2010 and was fourth in 2002 and 2006.