By Steve Keating
SOCHI, Russia Feb 13 (Reuters) - Gold medal favourites Russia and Canada got off to nervy starts in the Olympic men's ice hockey competition on Thursday while the United States and Finland turned on the style in blowout wins.
Canada and Russia (as the former Soviet Union) between them have won 15 of 22 Olympic titles, but failed to live up to their superpower status as they laboured to opening wins against two ice hockey minnows.
Going up against a Slovenian team making their Olympic debut, it was supposed to be a leisurely start to the tournament for the mighty Russians.
But Slovenia briefly threatened to ruin the party and pull off the biggest Olympic ice hockey upset since the 1980 Lake Placid 'Miracle on Ice' until Russia showed their class with a third-period burst to pull out a 5-2 win.
Canada got its gold medal defense off to a sluggish start and also needed a late push to seal a 3-1 win over Norway.
"Every team here is good and we know we have to get better as things go on but I thought in the second and third we definitely got to our game a lot more," said Canada captain Sidney Crosby, who scored the 'golden' goal that gave them the Olympic title at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The United States, silver medallist in two of the last three Olympics, scored six goals in the second period in a 7-1 romp over Slovakia to send a clear message they will be contenders for top spot on the podium in Sochi.
With the Black Sea resort experiencing weather more in keeping with July's Tour de France, the Finnish team decided to ride bikes to their opener against Austria.
Although it was just the first stage of the 12-day tournament, the Finns rode away with an impressive 8-4 win with the help of two goals each from Mikael Granlund and Jarkko Immonen.
On an action-packed day when most of the hockey heavyweights were in action, the focus was on Russia as they began their golden quest.
The stakes get higher and the pressure will turn up another notch on Saturday when the hosts will face off against the United States in a mouth-watering matchup that will hark back to their famous 'Miracle on Ice' encounter in 1980.
Yet revenge for a humiliating loss to a group of American college players 34 years ago could wait a few more days.
Russian hockey fans arrived at the Bolshoy Ice Dome on Thursday ready to rekindle fading memories of the glory days of the 'Big Red Machine' when Soviet teams ruled the international ice.
An enthusiastic flag-waving crowd filled the futuristic arena, including Vladislav Tretyak, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation president and former Soviet goaltender who made a costly error in the 1980 showdown with the U.S.
The home fans expected a blowout but instead were left on the edge of their seats until Valery Nichushkin and Anton Belov scored to put host nation back in charge and settle nerves at the soldout arena.
"We started well we got the lead then we stopped playing," Russian sniper Alex Ovechkin told reporters.
"We tried to make casual moves, when we had a chance to shoot the puck we didn't shoot. We gave them more life." (Editing by Toby Davis)