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On Olympics

It was a meaningless preliminary game, but the US women’s hockey team treated it like the medal round

The United States' women's hockey team defeated Finland 5-2 in their first game at the Olympics.Bruce Bennett/Getty

They didn’t have to win this one or any of their next three preliminary games. The way the Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament is structured, the Americans are guaranteed a spot in the quarterfinals even if they don’t score a goal.

That is precisely why the defending champions approached Thursday’s opener as if there was a medal on the line. Because soon enough, there will be.

“It’s always hard in the first game of any tournament, let alone the Olympics, but I was really impressed by our players,” said US coach Joel Johnson after his experienced side dominated a young Finnish squad by a 5-2 count. “I give them a ton of credit.”

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But the victory came with a significant price as Brianna Decker, a three-time Olympian and the top-line center, was sidelined for the rest of the Games after suffering a leg injury less than 10 minutes into the first period.

“It was sickening,” said teammate Amanda Kessel. “She is one of the toughest players I have ever played with. She is not staying down on the ice and crying if it was not bad. We want to win for her.”

Decker’s teammates quickly responded with two goals in less than three minutes and dictated from there, outshooting the Finns, 52-12.

This outing was about setting the tone for the tournament, about the Americans sending a message to their rivals — especially their northern neighbors — that they’re every bit as formidable as they were four years ago in PyeongChang even if they’re not the world champions.

It took only 13 minutes for the US to make an emphatic statement with goals from Kessel and Alex Carpenter staking their mates to a 2-0 lead and captain Kendall Coyne Schofield doubling it with two strikes only 64 seconds apart in the second period.

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The fast start was crucial against a Finnish group that has won three bronzes at past Games and has reached the medal round all but once. “If we don’t show up ready to go we’re going to be in for a long day,” Johnson predicted.

As it turned out the day (which was night in Beijing) ended up being two minutes and 20 seconds longer than it was supposed to after a video review showed that a shot by Finnish forward Susanna Tapani that had dinged a pipe and bounced off the in-net camera before coming back out had indeed been a goal.

By then the Americans already were celebrating what they thought was a four-goal triumph. Instead they had to play on as Finland pulled rookie goaltender Anni Keisala and made one final push.

Such is the nature of what the Finns call “sisu,” their admirable quality of persistence in the face of long odds. These are the people who fought the mechanized Russians on skis in subzero weather in 1940. They can handle 60-plus minutes of hockey against a superior opponent.

United States player Amanda Kessel (center) goes head-to-head with Finland's Jenni Hiirikoski in their game on Thursday.Sarah Stier/Getty

The US males have learned about “sisu” the hard way over the decades. The Boys of Winter had to come from behind in the third period to beat Finland and win the gold medal at Lake Placid in 1980. Twice since, in 1994 and 2006, the Finns have kept the Yanks out of the medal round. In Sochi in 2014, they humiliated the US, 5-0, for the bronze medal with Tuukka Rask in the cage.

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While it was unlikely that the Finnish women could knock off the Americans, who’d won their previous eight Olympic meetings by a 37-7 count, it wasn’t impossible. Three years ago at the world championships the Finns had the title won on home ice with an overtime score over the US. But the tally was overturned for goalie interference and the Americans won in a shootout.

So even against a Finnish team that had 13 Olympic newbies, the reigning champs knew they’d have to be on their game throughout to prevail.

They won’t need to be firing on all cylinders in their next two contests against the Russians on Saturday and the Swiss on Sunday so it was useful that the Americans had to break a sweat on Thursday. Because Tuesday’s group finale against the Canadians will be nose-to-nose, toe-to-toe as it always is.

“It’s one of the most beautiful rivalries in sport,” said US forward Hilary Knight. “It doesn’t matter where we are playing, at the Olympics or in a shed. It’s just there.”

The Yanks and Canucks have met in every final at the Games except one — in 2006 when the US was upset by the Swedes in the semis in Turin. Their 2018 clash, where the Americans ended a 20-year drought in a shootout, was a classic.

This time the Canadians, who dethroned the US in overtime at last year’s world tournament, come in as favorites. They put down an impressive marker on Thursday afternoon, whomping the Swiss, 12-1. Canada gets the Finns on Saturday, so comparisons will be inevitable.

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What’s important now is that the Americans came out of the opener with a solid decision over the third-best team in the field. Not that a loss would have damaged their chances for gold. But the champs want the world to know that they’re still the bunch to beat at Olympus.


John Powers can be reached at john.powers@globe.com.