- Associated Press - Thursday, February 6, 2014

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - For women’s hockey, the game between the United States and Canada is the highlight of the Olympics and it usually comes with the gold medal at stake.

This year, the wait will be a little shorter.

Because of a change in the format designed to cut down on opening-round blowouts, the U.S. and Canada will meet in the preliminary round for the first time since the sport joined the Winter Games in 1998. The teams could ultimately play again in the gold medal game on Feb. 20, but they’ll have a more difficult road to get there.

“It’s going to be tough, but you don’t want easy games to make it far,” American defenseman Megan Bozek said. “It’s the hard that makes it great.”

Since women’s hockey became an Olympic sport, it has been dominated by the North American rivalry that has played out in every world championship title game and all but one Olympic final. But the days or weeks leading up to the gold medal games have been characterized by laughable mismatches, often with double-digit victories by the top-tier teams against opponents who show they don’t belong on the same ice.

The spate of round-robin blowouts led IOC President Jacques Rogge to warn the sport’s governing body after Vancouver, “We cannot continue without improvement.”

So changes were made.

Instead of two evenly matched groups, the eight countries competing in Sochi were split up so that the top four teams in the world rankings will be in one group and the next four in another. After the round robin, the top two teams in Group A receive a bye into the semifinals; the next two go into the quarterfinals to play the top two teams in Group B.

The bottom two teams in Group B have no chance to medal and play for spots 5-8.

“We of course know that progress takes time, and that the U.S. and Canada have top-quality programs, but we certainly hope to see many competitive games in Sochi,” said Adam Steiss, a spokesman for the International Ice Hockey Federation.

The format was tested out in the last two world championships, and the international governing body liked the results. While at the Vancouver Olympics almost half of the games - nine of 20 - had a five-goal difference or more, there were five blowouts in 21 games at the 2012 worlds and four in ‘13.

“Keeping this in mind, we can reasonably expect tighter and more competitive games in Sochi,” Steiss said. “Of course it is impossible to predict what is going to happen, but at least the past seems to indicate that.”

For the United States, that means first-round games against Switzerland, which took bronze at the 2012 world championships; against Finland, which won the bronze medal at the Vancouver Games; and, of course, against archrival Canada.

“I just think it’s great for the game. You go to the Olympics or world championships, you want to play the best competition you can,” U.S. coach Katey Stone said. “And, hopefully, we’ll see each other again.”

Group B will include Russia, which lost 13-0 to the U.S. in the last Olympics; Sweden, which lost 13-1 to Canada in Vancouver; Germany, which did not qualify for the 2010 Games; and Japan, which hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since Nagano in 1998.

Steiss also pointed to the ability of different countries to reach the podium at the world championships as a possible effect of the changes. While the world championship finals have remained a North American affair, three different teams have won the bronze medal in the past three years.

“U.S.-Canada, that’s what people expect to be in the final. That’s what they align for,” said Canadian assistant coach Danielle Goyette, who competed in three Olympics, winning two gold medals and a silver. “But in this format you can’t take any team for granted.”

The biggest problem with the mismatched groups may be that it deprives the bottom-tier teams of a chance to face the top competition, an opportunity the players look forward to and the coaches cherish for the experience it gives their growing programs.

Japanese assistant coach Carla MacLeod, a Canadian who won gold medals in 2006 and ‘10, said there’s an easy solution.

“You’ve got to earn it,” she said. “That’s your goal: To be able to play them. Work hard and get there.”


Follow Jimmy Golen on Twitter at: https://www.twitter.com/jgolen

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