By Frank Pingue
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Women's ice hockey will debut a new format at the Sochi Games on Saturday aimed at avoiding the embarrassing routs that have put the sport's Olympic future in doubt, but the tournament should still come down a battle of Davids and Goliaths.
Since the women's event was added to the Olympic program at the 1998 Nagano Games, Canada and the United States have accounted for all four gold medals.
Following the 2010 Vancouver Games, which included an 18-0 Canadian rout over Slovakia, then IOC President Jacques Rogge put women's ice hockey on notice, saying: "we cannot continue without improvement."
Rogge's comments came after Canada and United States blitzed the opposition by a combined score of 86-4 on the way to the final.
In a bid to eliminate the mismatches, teams in Sochi are grouped according to world ranking with three-time Olympic champions Canada, top-ranked United States, Finland and Switzerland playing in Group A.
Russia, Sweden, Germany and Japan are in Group B.
The format was introduced at the 2012 world championships.
After the preliminary round robin, the bottom two Group A teams will play the top two from Group B in the quarter-finals.
The winners move on to the semis to play the top two teams in Group A.
Swiss head coach Rene Kammerer is well aware of the task his team faces in Group A.
"You know the story of David and Goliath. We need to take the small stone and hit the right place," said Kammerer.
"We know we are David, but our Swiss Cross (pointing to the emblem over his heart) is always a plus and if they hit us, we have to fight back, and we'll be ready."
Play begins on Saturday when the United States, runners-up in Vancouver, face a Finnish team that won bronze four years ago. That game will be followed by Canada versus Switzerland.
"This is our chance to make a big opening statement," said Finnish forward Michelle Karvinen. "We beat the USA in Lake Placid (in a four nations tournament in November in New York) so we don't have to be in awe of them."
While the new format may keep scores in check at the Sochi Games, few expect any nation to interrupt a gold-medal clash between Canada and the United States.
The sport's two powerhouses have clashed in every gold medal game except 2006 when Canada beat Sweden.
Finland is considered to have a shot at making some noise in Sochi along with Sweden and Russia.
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.
Still, the Canadians refuse to discount any opponent.
"We have a healthy dose of respect for Finland and Switzerland," said Canada's head coach Kevin Dineen. "They have some great individual players. They're very strong in net. They're very formidable opponents."
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 couple 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 February 12.
"The United States and Canada are really strong teams. They have good goalies, they have four lines and good players, but we also have a good team," said Finnish forward Karolina Rantamaki.
"If we had never beat them, it's hard to think that we will. But now we have, it seems easier to us."
The women will play their games in the Shayba Arena until the medal rounds when games will be played in the larger Bolshoy Ice Dome.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)