By Frank Pingue
Jan 28 (Reuters) - Three-time defending champions Canada and the United States are expected to battle it out for the women's ice hockey gold at the Sochi Games but the performances of the other nations could have more influence on the sport's place at the Olympics.
Russia, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany and Japan are also competing in Sochi but stand little chance of getting between the sport's powerhouses and the gold medal game.
Women's ice hockey was put on notice after the Vancouver Games, where Canada and the United States blitzed the opposition by a combined score of 86-4 on the way to the final.
Leading the way for Canada will be Hayley Wickenheiser, a 35-year-old veteran of four Olympic Games and the country's all-time leading scorer.
Canada will have less experience than the national squads that competed at the previous two Olympic tournaments but with 12 returning players there will be plenty of leadership and the same hallmarks of previous teams.
"We're a little bit younger in the experience department," said Wickenheiser. "We're very similar in the type of style we're going to play - a tight forechecking style and trying to counteract with a lot of speed."
Canada open the defence of the gold medal on Feb. 8 against Switzerland.
Women's ice hockey made its debut on the Olympic programme at the 1998 Nagano Games with the United States capturing the inaugural gold medal before Canada asserted its dominance at the next three Olympics.
This year's U.S. squad are youthful and fast and will be brimming with confidence having beaten Canada in the gold medal game of the 2013 worlds and, more recently, winning the last four of six pre-Olympic exhibition games against their rivals.
That pre-Olympic tune-up showed how intense the rivalry between the two countries is with the women making headlines for a pair of brawls.
Amanda Kessel, the younger sister of National Hockey League player Phil Kessel, will lead the way for an American team that will play Canada in their final round-robin game on Feb. 12.
Kessel, 22, was the top American scorer at last year's worlds and netted the winner in the gold medal game.
"She is one of the fastest smartest and most talented players in the game," said Reagan Carey, general manager of the U.S. women's team.
"She is a game changer, she has great vision, and the puck is always on her stick because she never stops moving. Amanda creates her own luck."
Finland, Sweden and Russia are considered to have the best shot at getting in the way of a Canada-U.S. final. Finland upset the United States in last November's Four Nations Cup, an event the Americans had finished first or second in every appearance since its debut in 1996.
The Feb. 8-20 women's tournament will be played in the Shayba Arena until the medal rounds, when games will be played in the larger Bolshoy Ice Dome. (Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Peter Rutherford)