By Frank Pingue
SOCHI, Russia, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Canada's stunning comeback against the United States in the final of the women's ice hockey at the Sochi Games capped a more competitive tournament that could help the sport remain part of the Olympic programme.
Women's ice hockey was under the microscope in Sochi, not so much to see if any nation would stand in the way of the two superpowers but more to determine whether the overall level of competition had improved from the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The number of blowouts that hurt the sport's image in Vancouver dropped considerably in Sochi, due to a combination of a new round robin format and modest improvement from the other six competing nations.
As a result, Canada and the United States outscored their opponents by a combined score of 29-3, not including their group stage game against each other, en route to meeting in the Sochi final, compared to an 86-4 margin in Vancouver.
But unlike four years ago when the International Olympic Committee talked openly about removing women's ice hockey from the Games, International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel sounded a much more optimistic tone in Sochi.
"That will never happen," said Fasel. "I can guarantee that will never happen."
A big reason for the closer games was a format that grouped together the top four teams in the IIHF rankings group during the round-robin stage, while the four lower ranked teams competed in another group.
The most lopsided score of the tournament was a 9-0 U.S. win over Switzerland, who went on to win the bronze medal for their first Olympic women's ice hockey podium appearance.
While there is still plenty of work for the other nations to do before they can truly threaten the United States and Canada, it appears the women's game has made strides and will be included in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
"We started in Vancouver with a 17-0 Canada-Slovakia game," said Fasel. "It's much better (than Vancouver), but we are not there. I really hope that in Pyeongchang we will have a better result, but we have to work very hard."
While Canada and the United States marched to the gold medal game with relative ease, the other countries managed to put on a relatively entertaining tournament.
Finland, backed by standout goalie Noora Raty and one of the teams considered to have the best shot of pulling off an upset in Sochi, instead found themselves on the receiving end of an upset when they lost 4-2 to Sweden in the quarter-finals.
Canada were made to work harder than expected in their semi-final win over a tenacious Switzerland, who held the eventual champions scoreless for the final 50 minutes.
Canada's 3-1 win marked the closest result between the two teams.
The large gap in talent between the sport's top two teams and the rest of the competition remains, but nobody was calling for a different gold medal matchup anyway.
The ultimate goal was to make sure the bulk of games played were more competitive, and in the end that was achieved.
"The difference between the countries now is fitness and conditioning. You see as the games go on their level of play drops off and their compete level drops off," said Canadian forward Hayley Wickenheiser.
"But we're together full-time as a centralised group all the time and if other countries did the same we would probably see the gap close even more."
When it came down to the final, Canada and the United States played out a game that will be remembered for one of the greatest comebacks in women's ice hockey history.
Trailing by two goals with under four minutes to play in regulation, Canada scored twice, including one with 55 seconds to play, before going on to win 3-2 on Marie-Philip Poulin's goal eight minutes into the sudden-death overtime period.
Poulin's equaliser came moments after U.S. forward Kelli Stack sent a clearing shot down the length of the ice that hit the post of a Canadian net left empty after their goaltender had been pulled in favour of an extra attacker.
The triumph capped an undefeated run in Sochi for Canada, who have won four of the five gold medals awarded since women's ice hockey made its debut at the 1998 Nagano Games. (Editing by Peter Rutherford)