* Valiant effort by Finnish netminder
* Americans score on first shot of Games (Wraps opening day’s play)
By Steve Keating
SOCHI, Russia, Feb 8 (Reuters) - The United States and Canada once again appear to be on a gold medal collision course after both opened the women’s ice hockey competition at the Sochi Olympics with routine wins on Saturday.
Canada, chasing a fourth straight trip to the top of the Olympic podium, blasted 69 shots at shell-shocked netminder Florence Schelling steamrolling past Switzerland 5-0 while the United States was dominant in a 3-1 victory over Finland.
Either the U.S. or Canada have won every gold medal since women’s hockey joined the Winter Games programme in 1998 and the two powerhouses signaled that they are once again ready to battle for top spot.
Bronze medallists four years ago in Vancouver and upset winners over the mighty Americans in a pre-Sochi tune-up, it was thought the Finns might be ready to challenge the U.S./Canada Olympic duopoly at the top of the medal podium.
But early indications are it will be more of the same in Russia, with the U.S. and Canada playing for the gold just as they have in every world championship since 1990 and three-of-four Olympics.
While the opening day results were far more competitive than four years ago in Vancouver when Canada crushed Slovakia 18-0 and the United States pounded China 12-1, the gap between the two North American hockey superpowers and the rest of world seems as wide as ever.
In an attempt to make the qualifying round more palatable, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) changed the format for Sochi, placing the top four ranked nations (Canada, U.S., Finland and Switzerland) in the same group.
But the opening games indicate that the Canadians and Americans remain in a league of their own.
If not for heroic efforts from Schelling and Finnish netminder Noora Raty, who withstood a 43-shot barrage from the Americans, both games would have ended in blowouts
“They (other countries) are getting harder to play against, their goaltender (Schelling) is a big part of their team but she is world class and without her it is maybe 15-0,” Canadian forward Hayley Wickenheiser said.
“So it starts with the goaltending and then moves out. I think the difference between countries now is the fitness and conditioning (and) as the game goes on their compete level drops off.”
Under pressure from the International Olympic Committee to make the sport more competitive, IIHF officials will no doubt be pleased by the apparently close 3-1 and 5-0 scorelines but for those watching at a nearly sold out Shayba Arena the contests were not nearly as close as the results would indicate.
U.S. coach Katey Stone did her best during the post-game press conference to sell the possibility of new drama in the women’s tournament but even Finnish coach Mika Pieniniemi conceded the Americans and Canadians will be tough to beat.
“I know for sure there are 21 players and four coaches in the USA Hockey locker room that don’t believe this is a two- team hockey tournament,” Stone told reporters.
“We played Finland in November and they beat us, we played them here today in a very close game and we believe very strongly that this is a world event and anyone can win.”
Even though all four teams in Group A advance out of the preliminary round, the Americans came out playing with a sense of urgency determined to cement their status as gold medal favourites.
The U.S., who chose not to take part in Friday’s opening ceremony in order to rest, scored on their first shot, 53 seconds into the opening period and never let up.
Canada was also quick to seize control, Jocelyne Larocque needing 85 seconds to give the defending gold medallists the lead. (Editing by Rex Gowar)