It's finally here.
The women's Olympic hockey tournament is back, with 10 of the world's top teams set to open the hockey portion of the Winter Games on Wednesday evening in North America, Thursday afternoon in China.
As usual, Canada and the United States are the favorites to win the tournament after sweeping the previous six Olympic golds. But the sport has seen the skill gap close in recent years, with teams like Finland and Switzerland making noise in medal rounds at various levels and other teams developing some of the best talent they ever have. It's no longer an absolute given that the two North American powers will walk away with it so easily.
There's a ton of top talent to watch in Beijing after years of stops and starts for the women's game due to COVID-19. Here's a look at a player on each team to keep an eye on:
Sarah Fillier, F (Canada)
Marie-Philip Poulin might be the biggest name and the one with the most pedigree, but Fillier is a future star in the making. Fillier was one of Canada's better players during the World Championship over the summer with six points in seven games and has been close to a point-per-game player at most major international events she's played in. At 21, she's part of the next generation of Canadian hockey stars, and she's just getting started with her first Olympic appearance.
Hilary Knight, F (USA)
Heading towards her fourth Olympic appearance, Knight hasn't slowed down in recent years and will once again play an integral part in USA's attempt at gold. Knight is fifth all-time in scoring on USA's Olympic team and first among all active players with 17 points in 15 games. She's also first on USA with 80 points in 59 World Championship games, and just seven points away from taking the all-time tournament lead, something she could do a few months from now. She's a Team USA legend and at 32, Knight isn't done just yet.
Jenni Hiirikoski, D (Finland)
She's one of the best to ever do it. Just scrolling down her Elite Prospects page is a chore due to her incredible number of accolades, including two top defenseman titles at the Olympics and seven at the World Championship, among other awards. It's crazy, really, just to see how good she's been for so long, and how dominant of a defenseman she was during the 2010s. The 34-year-old has had another spectacular year in Sweden and played well in some winter exhibition game action with Finland. If she doesn't end up with a medal, expect her to take some other hardware home, at least.
Anna Shokhina, F (Russia)
It's hard to believe that at 24, Shokhina is already headed to her fourth Olympic games. She was a member of the group that won bronze four years ago in South Korea and led Russia in scoring at her last World Championship appearance back in 2019. In fact, Shokhina has always been one of Russia's best players at any level, and that won't change in Beijing.
Alina Müller, F (Switzerland)
Even younger than Shokhina, Müller, 23, is ready for her third Olympic games. She was very impactful in 2014 and 2018 for the Swiss, scoring the game-winning goal to take bronze in 2014 before leading the team in scoring with seven goals and 10 points in 2018. The Northeastern University star has been racking up the offense this season after recovering from an ankle injury she suffered early in the 2021 World Championship. Now that she's healthy, she's ready to lead the offense for a Swiss team you can never count out of medal contention.
Rachel Llanes, F (China)
Born in San Jose, Llanes played the minimum time required to represent China internationally for the first time. The Northeastern University alumn spent four years with Boston in the CWHL and NWHL before joining the Kunlun Red Star program, where she currently sits third in team scoring with 16 points in 21 games. She also serves as the team's strength and conditioning coach, which makes her a unique dual-threat.
Alena Mills, F (Czech Republic)
One of the best players outside of Canada, Finland or the United States, the 31-year-old Mills returns to the world stage as captain of a team coming off of a strong Olympic qualification tournament. Among her numerous awards, she won Division IA gold three separate occasions, acting as the driving force often for the team's attempt at making it back to the top division. Czechia is a mainstay now, largely thanks to her, and she'll be counted on to steal a game or two along the way with players like Aneta Terjalova and Klara Hymlarova.
Josefine Jakobsen, F (Denmark)
Denmark finally became a top division team for the 2021 World Championship, having spent most of the past decade in Division IA. But through it all, Jakobsen's play was always been a positive, and she'll, as usual, be one of Denmark's most valuable forwards. Special shoutout to Silke Lave Glud, the multi-talented forward/defender that scored the goal that sent the Danes to Beijing.
Nana Fujimoto, G (Japan)
Fujimoto is going to be busy, something that's often been the case throughout her career. Fortunately for Japan, Fujimoto is more than capable of living up to the challenge. The top goaltender from the 2015 World Championship and a participant in the NWHL all-star game in 2015-16, Fujimoto is typically near the top of all major statistical categories when she participates and is coming off a big showing at the 2021 World Championship, too.
Maja Nylén-Persson, D (Sweden)
At 21, Nylén-Persson is one of the top young players in the Swedish system and is a returning player from the 2018 Games. That time, At 21, Nylén-Persson was Sweden's top offensive defender with four points in six games and played particularly well for a team outside of medal contention. She also ranks sixth in the SDHL with 40 points in just 28 games and was lights out during the qualification round a few months ago. Seriously, she's great.