REVIEW Olympics-Ice hockey-Women stick to script, men pen surprise finish

BEIJING, Feb 20 (Reuters) - While the women's ice hockey tournament played out to a familiar script at the Beijing Games, the men's competition produced an unexpected finale.

You cannot always be sure it will snow at a Winter Olympics but it is a safe bet that Canada or the United States will skate away with women's gold.

In Beijing it was Canada's turn to take top spot on the podium with a 3-2 win over their North American neighbours. read more

If that has a familiar ring to it so it should.

Since women's hockey became part of the Olympic programme at the 1998 Nagano Games, Canada or the U.S. have been crowned as gold medallists as they have at every world championship.

Marie-Philip Poulin led Canada with a pair of goals and if that sounds familiar as well it is because 'Captain Clutch' has now scored three Olympic gold-medal clinching goals -- all at the United States' expense.

In contrast, the men's podium saw Finland taking gold for the first time as they edged the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) 2-1, while Slovakia claimed their first medal by winning the bronze with a 4-0 rout of Sweden. read more

Not many hockey fans had heard of teenager Juraj Slafkovsky before the Beijing Games.

A lot more are aware of the Slovakian now after the 17-year-old led the Olympics in scoring with seven goals and was named the most outstanding player, underlining his likely status as a top-five pick in this year's National Hockey League draft.

There were no surprises, however, when it came to the performance of China's men's team, who were making their Olympic debut in Beijing.

China, even stocked with 15 foreign-born players, were expected to lose every game and did but they managed to avoid the humiliating losses many predicted - thanks in large part to the absence of NHL players.

The last medal to be decided in Beijing - the men's final - was supposed to provide a sporting crescendo to the Games with the world's best battling for gold.

But Beijing was denied that spectacle when the NHL opted out of Olympic participation after a COVID-19 surge through North American locker rooms forced the postponement of more than 100 games.

Before the NHL pulled out, Canada and the U.S. - stocked with rosters of all-stars and future Hall of Famers - were the hot favourites for men's gold.

But without their best players, and with teams instead cobbled together from minor leagues and colleges, both countries crashed out in the quarter-finals.

Reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Ken Ferris

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