* Valiant effort by Finnish netminder
* Americans score on first shot of Games
The United States eased past Finland 3-1 on Saturday as the women's ice hockey competition at the Sochi Olympics got off to a familiar start with a one-sided victory.
The U.S. and Canada have won every gold medal since women's ice hockey joined the Winter Games programme in 1998 and the Americans signalled that they are once again ready to challenge for top spot with a clinical victory.
Bronze medallists four years ago in Vancouver and upset winners over the mighty Americans in a pre-Sochi tune-up, it was thought the Finns might be ready to threaten the U.S./Canada Olympic duopoly at the top of the medal podium.
But early indications are it will be more of the same in Russia, with the U.S. and Canada once again appearing on a gold medal collision course. Canada, going for a third successive gold, start their campaign later on Saturday against Switzerland.
Under pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make the sport more competitive, International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) officials will do doubt be pleased by the apparently close 3-1 scoreline but for those watching at a nearly soldout Shayba Arena the contest was not nearly as close as the result would indicate.
Only a valiant display from Finnish netminder Noora Raty prevented the opener from becoming a blowout as the United States outshot their opponents 43-15.
U.S. coach Katey Stone did her best during the post-game press conference to sell the possibility of new drama in the women's tournament but even Finnish coach Mika Pieniniemi conceded the Americans and Canadians will be tough to beat.
"I know for sure there are 21 players and four coaches in the USA Hockey locker room that don't believe this is a two- team hockey tournament," Stone told reporters.
"We played Finland in November and they beat us, we played them here today in a very close game and we believe very strongly that this is a world event and anyone can win."
Even though all four teams in Group A advance out of the preliminary round, the Americans came out playing with a sense of urgency determined to cement their status as gold medal favourites.
The U.S., who chose not to take part in Friday's opening ceremony in order to rest, scored on their first shot, just 53 seconds into the opening period.
Hilary Knight stole the puck and rifled it past Raty to open the scoring.
"Anytime you can strike quickly, regardless of the team you are playing, the goaltender, the environment, it helps give everyone a little bit of deep breath," said Stone. "I'm pleased the way our team played today, came out flying.
"Obviously scoring in the first minute sets the tone and take a bit of the edge off."
Kelli Stack and Alex Carpenter added goals in the second period to make it 3-0 before Susanna Tapani pulled one back for Finland to spoil U.S. netminder Jessie Vetter's shutout bid with just under five minutes to play in the third.
"They were pretty lucky but you have to earn your luck and they definitely earned their goals," said Raty. "It was kind of a nightmare start for me as a goalie but I think we got better as the game went on."