SOCHI, Russia — The pain lingers for the United States women's hockey team.
A loss to rival Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver has fueled Team USA in its quest for redemption in the Sochi Games.
"In Vancouver, coming up a little bit short … was devastating," U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said. "When you step away from that moment and you move forward, you use it as a training power. It burns in your heart every single day and you remind yourself and your teammates and you encourage your teammates that you don't ever want to feel that again. We've been preparing ourselves this time around to do everything we can to come out on top this time. We've covered all angles. It would be an honor to get in that gold-medal game and to win."
With the U.S. and Canada the reigning powerhouses, it appears they are again on a collision course to play for gold during the eight-team tournament that begins Saturday. Since that gold-medal game in '10 — won by Canada, 2-0 — the rivalry has only grown. During pre-Olympic tuneup games, the teams brawled on two occasions.
"The rivalry between Canada is probably the most intense one in the world," U.S. forward Kelli Stack said. "We really don't like each other on the ice so it gets pretty heated out there. We both are super-competitive. [The U.S.] has won most of the World Championships in the last few years, but we haven't won an Olympic gold medal since 1998. We're really focused this time around in getting that gold."
Under a new seeding format, Canada and the U.S are ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in Group A followed by Finland and Switzerland. Those four teams will automatically advance to the quarterfinals, with the top two receiving byes into the semis. The lower two teams in Group A will face the top two finishers in Group B, which features Sweden, Russia, Germany and Japan. The remainder of the teams will drop into the classification round.
The gold-medal game is Feb. 20.
Despite four losses to the U.S. in seven pre-Games tuneups and a coaching change Dec. 17 that brought in former NHL coach Kevin Dineen to pick-up the pieces, Canada remains the team to beat. Canada won the last three Olympics.
"We cannot afford to be distracted by only concentrating on the American team — that would be dangerous," Canada defenseman Jocelyne Larocque said. "We must focus on every game. We don't underestimate any opponent.
"[The U.S.] has a 4-3 advantage over us in the build-up to the Olympics, but that doesn't count for anything," she added. "This is the Olympics. This is different."
Said U.S. defenseman Megan Bozek of facing Canada: "You have to expect blood, sweat and tears against them. It's always been a heavy rivalry on the men's and women's sides. We're here for the same reason, the same goal. In our past seven competitions, it's been a battle. May the best team win. We're all fighting for that one end."
The biggest challenger to Canada and the U.S. comes from Finland, which features the top goaltender in the tournament in Noora Raty. Behind a brilliant 58-save performance by Raty, the Finns defeated the U.S. in the Four Nations Cup in November.
The teams will have a rematch in the tournament opener Saturday, just one of the more difficult challenges the U.S. will face in the preliminary round. The U.S. plays Canada on Feb. 12.
"If you want to be the best … in the world then you better go through another great team," U.S. Coach Katey Stone said. "You control your emotions, you stay in the moment and you play your game. We're trying to be the best team we can be. That is really the focus, regardless of who we play and where we play them. It's on us.
"The key for us is that we're not reliant on one part of our game," Stone added. "We're not expecting one person, two people, five people, to carry our load. Every person has a role and if they continue to own it and embrace it we're going to be just fine."