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What to watch for at the Olympics: Thursday, Feb. 20

Photo: Al Tielemans/SI

The heated USA-Canada women's hockey rivalry will rage once again with a gold medal on the line Thursday.

SOCHI -- How should we describe the rivalry between the United States and Canada in women’s hockey? Let’s ask former U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero.

“It’s the Yankees versus Red Sox,” Ruggiero says, “without the trades.”

As SI’s Sarah Kwak writes in her primer on Thursday’s gold medal game (noon) at Bolshoy Ice Dome between the hockey powers, the rivalry is tight and nasty. The last three world championship finals between Canada and the U.S. were one-goal games, and two went to overtime. Two of the teams’ pre-Sochi meetings featured post-whistle brawls.

As for the Olympic history, Canada and United States have played for the gold medal in women’s hockey three times (1998, 2002 and 2010) and played five times overall in Olympic play, including Canada’s 3-2 win in the preliminary round last week. The Olympic rivalry, however, has been one-sided: Canada has not lost a match in Olympic women's ice hockey since 1998, a streak of 19 consecutive games.

Can the U.S. end that streak Thursday? That’s the prime question on a day featuring medals awarded in curling (women’s), freestyle skiing (men’s ski cross and women’s ski halfpipe), figure skating (women’s singles) and Nordic combined (team relay).

What to watch (all times in Eastern Standard Time)

• NORDIC COMBINED: The favorites are Austria, France and Norway in the team large hill/4x5 km race. The competition runs from 3 a.m.-6 a.m. Austria has won the last two Olympic team events in Nordic combined, and team member Mario Stecher can become the first man to win three Olympic gold medals in the team event. 

• CURLING: Undefeated Canada is bidding to win its first women’s curling gold medal since 1998 when it plays Sweden in Thursday’s final (8:30 a.m.). The only Olympic curling team to win a gold medal with a perfect record was the Canadian men’s team in Vancouver headed up by Kevin Martin. Sweden is attempting to win its third consecutive women's gold after defeating Switzerland 7-5 in the semifinals. Great Britain and Switzerland will compete in the bronze medal game at 3:30 a.m.

• FIGURE SKATING: We expected South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na to be brilliant on Wednesday night -- and she was close. The defending Olympic champion leads the women’s figure skating competition after the short program with a score of 74.92.

But Wednesday night’s most surprising performance came from Russian 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, who vaulted into second place (74.64) with a breathtaking performance. Italy’s Carolina Kostner was terrific, too, finishing with a score 74.12.

It was a strong night for the Americans as well. They sit in fourth (Gracie Gold), sixth (Ashley Wagner) and seventh (Polina Edmunds), with Gold 6.29 points behind Kim.

The heralded Russian 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia tumbled in her short program but scored well enough on the planned elements to finish in fifth (65.23).

The skating order on Thursday night: Edmunds (17th), Lipnitskaia (19th), Costner (20th), Sotnikova (21st), Gold (22nd), Wagner (23rd), and Kim (24th and last).

“In warm-up I was very nervous, I couldn't jump at all,” Kim said after her short program. “But I tried to believe in myself and believed in what I've done before.”

The long program begins at 10 a.m., and if form holds, Kim will leave Sochi as arguably the greatest women’s figure skater of all time.

CAZENEUVE: Race for figure skating queen filled with short program spills

• FREESTYLE SKIING: Two gold medals will be handed out in freestyle skiing today (2:45 a.m.-12:30 p.m.). The women’s halfpipe could be a great day for the U.S. with favorites Maddie Bowman, the X Games winner, and American hopefuls Annalisa Drew, Brita Sigourney and Angeli Vanlaanen. Canada’s Rosalind Groenewold -- she finished second behind Bowman at the X Games -- and Switzerland’s Virginie Faivre are also medal threats. Many in the field will be thinking of halfpipe pioneer Sarah Burke of Canada, who died after a crash in training just over two years ago.

The men’s ski cross is a wide-open event with Canada’s David Duncan, Austria’s Andreas Matt, Switzerland’s Alex Fiva and Sweden’s Victor Oehling Norberg all contenders. The U.S’s best hope is John Teller, who works as an auto mechanic at his dad's Chevron station.

• WOMEN’S HOCKEY: The U.S. has won gold (1998), silver (2002, 2010) and bronze (2006) in Olympic play since women’s hockey became part of the program, but Canada has defeated the Americans in their last two Olympic finals meetings. The last time Canada's women lost an Olympic hockey game? That came Feb. 17, 1998 in Nagano when the U.S. beat them 3-1.

My colleague Kwak breaks down Thursday’s game (noon) here. “That is the goal, to treat this like any other game, but in the end it is not like just any other game,” U.S. forward Amanda Kessel said Wednesday. “This is what we have all worked for our entire lives."

Sweden is the clear favorite over Switzerland in the bronze medal game (7 a.m.), though the Swiss are guaranteed their best finish in women's Olympic ice hockey regardless. Switzerland has not won an Olympic medal in hockey since St. Moritz 1948, when its men's team captured a bronze medal. Switzerland's goalkeeper Florence Schelling has made 224 saves on 245 shots during this tournament.

Tweet of the day

ROSENBERG: With loss to Finland, Russia shows gold won on ice, not paper

By the numbers

190 -- Million people in China have watched at least 15 minutes of coverage from Sochi, according to the International Olympic Committee. 

167 -- Million Americans who had watched the Sochi Games as of Monday, according to NBC.

13 -- Winter Olympic medals for Norway biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, making him the most decorated winter Olympian of all time, surpassing Norway cross country skier Bjorn Daehlie.

1 -- U.S. man (Ted Ligety) who has won two alpine skiing Olympic gold medals.

LAYDEN: Ligety secures legacy with long-overdue gold in giant slalom

Around the web

The five stories from Sochi you’ll be talking about on Thursday:

Russian Olympic Hockey Coach: 'Eat Me Alive Right Now' (By Anton Troianovski, Wall Street Journal) -- This transcript is amazing. Read it.

‘Rhapsody in Blue’ or Rap? Skating Will Add Vocals (By Christopher Clarey, The New York Times-- Pairs dancing to Kayne West should be golden.

Here Comes Mikaela, Lauryn, Elana (By Jason Gay, Wall Street Journal) -- In a universe of 2,800 athletes, a few are chosen, celebrated, picked apart and thrust forward as household names.

The wildly uncool life of gold medal halfpipe skier David Wise (By Jeff Passan, Yahoo! Sports) -- A married halfpipe champ with a kid who doesn’t party? Dude is really radical.

Sochi Olympics: Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski Sparkle Off the Ice (By Betsy McKay, Wall Street Journal) -- NBC’s breakout announcing stars of the Sochi Games discuss their chemistry.