SOCHI, Russia -- The members of the U.S. women's hockey team don't have to be reminded that Team Canada is the elephant in the arena.
It would be bad form for them to talk about it at an eight-team Olympic tournament, but they all know USA-Canada is the one game that matters. The bitter rivals have met in three of the four Olympic finals and all 15 world championship finals.
"I know for sure that there are 21 players and four coaches in the USA hockey locker room that don't believe it's a two-team tournament," U.S. coach Katey Stone said Saturday.
What else could she say? Her team had just outshot Finland, 43-15, and opened the Olympic tournament with a 3-1 victory at Shayba Arena. Finnish coach Mika Pieniniemi was seated beside Stone in the postgame news conference and thanked her for being so magnanimous.
"Both North American teams, they are very strong," Pieniniemi said. "They are good teams. I hope we are getting better. There is no such thing that we can come here and say that we are going to beat either the U.S. or Canada. The main thing is that we put all the focus on our team."
True, this was the same Finnish team that upset the Americans, 3-1, in the Four Nations Cup on Nov. 8. But it was not the same U.S. team. That was the last time the Americans lost on their pre-Olympics tour.
"Huge wake-up call," said forward Kelli Stack. "We've come so far since then. Our chemistry is off the charts and we're so much more focused. We work a lot harder than we did back then. We were kind of like, 'We're on the Olympic team. We'll be fine.' And now we know what we have to do in order to win."
What they did to the Finns was attack, attack, attack. If not for the superb goaltending of Finland's Noora Raty, it would have been a blowout. Raty was one of the stars on the University of Minnesota's unbeaten (41-0) NCAA championship team last year.
"She's a world-class goaltender, everyone knows that," said U.S. defenseman Megan Bozek. "She's one of the best. But we stress our game. We stress our speed, our shots."
Less than a minute into the game, former University of Wisconsin standout Hilary Knight intercepted a pass at the blue line, raced toward Raty, shot and scored. Just like that, it was 1-0 and the pregame jitters were history.
"It was awesome," Stack said. "First shot on net went in and that kind of lets us relax and breathe a little bit."
Stack made it 2-0 in the second period when she caught the puck in her jersey in front of the net and batted it, Alexander Ovechkin-like, out of mid-air and past Raty's right shoulder.
"I've done that before against her in college," said Stack, who played for Boston College. "We played Minnesota in the NCAA regionals and we scored four goals on her in the first period. One of the goals, our defenseman shot and I caught it and spun around and hit it in the net."
Alex Carpenter scored the third goal for Team USA on a power play and Finland avoided the shutout on Susanna Tapani's power-play goal with less than 5 minutes remaining.
"I'd probably give it a 7 (out of 10)," Stack said. "We had a lot of chances. We could have scored a lot more goals. We played great but they got one power-play goal on us. It should have never happened. We've got a lot more in the tank, that's for sure."
Team USA now is 5-0 in Olympic openers and has outscored its opponents, 36-3, in those games.
In an attempt to reduce the number of preliminary round blowouts in the Winter Games, the four teams in Group A are the four top-seeded teams in the eight-team tournament and play each other once before the quarterfinals.
"It would be nice for there to be eight, 12 teams that were unbelievable but I think a lot of teams have come a long way," Stack said. "I think everyone is making a step in the right direction. In Vancouver (2010 Olympics) we beat Finland handily, like 8-0, and now the last two times we've played them we've won 3-1 and lost.
"So things are definitely changing and I think that's great."
The top two teams in Group A after the preliminary round receive a bye into the semifinals and the bottom two teams play in the quarterfinals against the top two teams from Group B.
The U.S. and top-seeded Canada meet in the preliminary round Wednesday and, barring a monumental upset, are headed for another golden showdown Feb. 20.
"We believe strongly that this is a world event that anyone can win," said a stone-faced Stone.
Anyone, that is, wearing red, white and blue or the maple leaf.
(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services