Column:: The biggest rivalry in women’s hockey is set for another chapter
This is why they put their lives on hold, why members of the U.S. women’s Olympic hockey team left their loved ones behind and gathered to train in Florida in mid-September, hoping to find even the smallest mental or physical advantage that might help them win a game they’ve waited four years to play.
The U.S. women will face defending champion Canada here on Thursday for the gold medal, a prize that has remained beyond the Americans’ grasp at the last four Olympic tournaments. The U.S. won the inaugural tournament at Nagano in 1998 but has not won the championship since then. This will be the third straight Olympic final involving the U.S. and Canada, the two superpowers of an evolving sport that still hasn’t developed enough teams capable of challenging for supremacy. The only time the U.S. and Canada didn’t meet in the final was at Turin in 2006, when the U.S was upset by Sweden in a shootout in the semifinals.
“It’s honestly a dream come true,” forward Hilary Knight said after the U.S. routed Finland 5-0 in the semifinals here. “This is the world’s biggest stage. This is the game that you want, the game we’ve been dreaming of, and to have another opportunity to get back here is huge.”
Canada rolled past the Olympic Athletes of Russia 5-0 in the semifinals. Their players — including 14 who participated in Canada’s comeback 3-2 overtime victory in the gold medal game at Sochi four years ago — know what to expect.
“A battle. A battle for the ages, as usual,” Canada forward Brianne Jenner said. “It’s one of the best rivalries in hockey. Not much more you can say.
“It’s the biggest stage. On one hand it’s like any other hockey tournament, and on the other it is our Stanley Cup.”
Canada won the teams’ preliminary-round match 2-1, after both had clinched byes to the semifinals. But it was an emotional and gritty game that showcased Canada’s goaltending and the Americans’ persistence in getting shots on net, even if those shots don’t often go in. Canadian goalies Genevieve Lacasse, Shannon Szabados and Ann-Renee Desbiens have stopped 98 of 100 shots in four games; Maddie Rooney and Nicole Hensley have stopped 71 of 74 shots launched against the U.S.
“Everyone’s plans are falling into place,” said Canada coach Laura Schuler, who played for Canada in the 1998 gold medal game at Nagano. “You have two great opponents at the end. It’s awesome on the world’s biggest stage for everybody to watch two powerhouses go at it.”
The U.S. scoring leader is forward Dani Cameranesi, who has scored three goals and five points. She’s a first-time Olympian, part of a post-Sochi roster turnover designed to incorporate youth and speed into the U.S. lineup. “Right after that, four years ago, we certainly looked at ourselves in the mirror and figured out what we can take away from it,” U.S. team captain Meghan Duggan said. “That’s a long time ago in our eyes. It’s a new team, we’re ready to go.
“All the games we played this tournament, we made it really tough on goaltenders, put a lot of shots on net, played to our strengths. I think our special teams have been great. I think we’ve gotten fantastic goaltending. Those are a lot of the things we’ll continue to look for, and we’ll be ready for Thursday.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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