Sochi promises to present the most exciting fight for the bronze medal in the 25-year history of women's hockey.
Four teams clearly have a chance to make the podium with the North Americans: Finland, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland have already done it before. Given that womenís hockey has been in the spotlight ever since 2010 when IOC president Jacques Rogge challenged the sport to improve or risk being eliminated from the Olympics, this is hearty news.
But it does come with a caveat.
The best player on most every European team is the goaltender. This is the one position which a nation can most easily develop because itís a fixed position on the ice and requires keeping the puck out of the goal as opposed to the much more difficult task of putting the puck in the opposition goal.
While the North American goalies are tested fully only when their teams play each other, every game is a challenge and adventure for the Europeans. The two games on the opening day are perfect examples. Although the Finns and Swiss were outplayed by the Americans and Canadians, respectively, the scores were respectable.
However, those scores were the result of Noora Ratyís great play in the Finnish goal and Florence Schelling in the Swiss net. Had lesser women tended the twine, as it were, both winning teams would undoubtedly have reached double digits on the scoreboard.
Kim Martin Hasson of Sweden is in her record-setting fourth Olympics. She was the youngest player in 2002 and now is the oldest player on her team in Sochi. Like Raty and Schelling, she played NCAA hockey - and excelled.
Russiaís Anna Prugova doesnít have the same pedigree and is perhaps the fourth-ranked among this elite group. In fact, the Russians had hoped to have Nadezhda Alexandrova on the team, but she is pregnant and unable to play. It was Alexandrovaís sensational play that led Russia to a stunning bronze medal at the 2013 Womenís Worlds in Ottawa, so her loss might be felt by the host nation.
Not surprisingly, the only two Europeans to have been named tournament MVP at either the Olympics or Womenís Worlds are both goalies. Raty won MVP at the 2008 WW and Zuzana Tomcikova was heroic in keeping Slovakia in the top pool at the 2011 WW in Switzerland.
Raty was also named Best Goalie by the IIHF Directorate in 2007, 2008, and 2011, an honour given to Schelling in 2012 when the Swiss won bronze and 2013 to Alexandrova. Indeed, the last three Best Goalie awards at the Womenís Worlds have all gone to Europeans, a reflection of both their skills and the busy-ness of their duties.
Goaltending is a position that can be coached. Defence can be coached, but the position requires excellent skating and speed as a start. And, of course, what canít be coached is the skill that is most valuable - scoring goals. And that has been the downfall of the Europeans when playing the North Americans - an almost total inability to generate offence, create scoring chances, pressure their opponentsÖand score goals.
Almost every North America-Euro game begins with the North Americans scoring early and taking away any hope of victory by the Euros. Raty, Schelling, et al. may be great athletes, but they canít score the goals as well as prevent them. Nevertheless, the better they play, the closer the scores, and the closer the scores, the better the game is for fans and player alike.
Of course, the excellent change in tournament format is also a contributing factor to a more competitive environment as the top four play in one round robin preliminary round and the lower four in another.
Although it appears that Canada and the United States are headed towards another gold-medal showdown in womenís hockey in Sochi - for what would be the 19th time in 20 top-level events - the hope for closer competition is real.
Womenís hockey isnít there yet. It will probably be the children of Martin-Hasson and Alexandrova who will be able to compete with Canada and the U.S. for gold or silver, but the game is clearly in a better place today than it was four years ago.
Development canít be rushed, and skill canít be acquired overnight. If patience is a virtue, then fans of womenís hockey can only hope the IOC is a virtuous group. In the meantime, we can enjoy the thrilling play of Europeís sensational goaltenders and look forward to an even brighter future if they can help establish a legacy in their homeland.