Column: U.S. vs. Canada once again set to determine Olympic women’s hockey supremacy

Canada goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens blocks a shot in front of United States forward Hilary Knight.
Canada goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens, right, blocks a shot in front of United States forward Hilary Knight during Canada’s preliminary-round win last week at the Beijing Olympics.
(Petr David Josek / Associated Press)

To the surprise of no one and the delight of anyone who can appreciate an impassioned rivalry no matter the sport, the U.S. and Canada will meet again to decide supremacy in women’s Olympic hockey.

The two superpowers have faced off in every women’s Olympic gold medal game except 2006 in Turin, where the U.S. lost to Sweden in the semifinals and went on to win a bronze medal. The U.S. won the first women’s hockey gold at Nagano in 1998 and the most recent, at Pyeongchang in 2018, in a shootout. Canada won the other four.

The rest of the world has improved a bit, but no other team has enough resources or has developed enough depth to push them for more than a period or two.


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“These are the games we live for, the games we dream for,” U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said Monday night after the Americans scored twice in the second period and twice in the third in a 4-1 semifinal victory over Finland at Wukesong Sports Centre. “Everyone is going to have to take their game up a notch.”

Canada has blasted through to Thursday’s final on the strength of a fearsome and balanced offense. The Canadians outscored their opponents 54-8, including a 4-2 preliminary-round decision over the U.S. They have the top six scorers in the tournament, led by Sarah Nurse’s 16 points. They clinched their berth in the gold medal game with a 10-3 rout of Switzerland earlier on Monday.

“I think we know that history, but we’re going to give ourselves a blank slate,” said Canada forward Brianne Jenner, who leads the tournament with nine goals. “We looked at it as an opportunity to go out there and claim a gold rather than looking at the history books and what has happened.”

United States
Cayla Barnes celebrates after scoring a goal against Finland in the semifinals Monday.
(Petr David Josek / Associated Press)

The Americans, held back during this tournament by a surprisingly fitful offense, lost only to Canada in the preliminary round. They’ve scored 28 goals and given up eight. The upside to their offensive woes is that they’ve learned to be patient and rely on grit when the goals aren’t flowing and games are close.

“I think we’re in a great place. Our backs have been up against the wall a couple times and we’ve had to really dig deep and find a way to score,” said defenseman Cayla Barnes, a native of Eastvale in Riverside County. “I think it’s been really great. We’ve grown a lot and I’m happy with the way we’re heading.”

Goaltender Alex Cavallini ensured that the first period against Finland on Monday would be scoreless when she managed to stop two close-in shots by four-time Olympian Michelle Karvinen in the closing seconds. She was particularly sharp in extending her left pad to stop Karvinen’s second attempt.

U.S. goaltender Alex Cavallini makes a kick save on a shot by Finland's Michelle Karvinen on Monday.
U.S. goaltender Alex Cavallini, right, makes a kick save on a shot by Finland’s Michelle Karvinen on Monday.
(Petr David Josek / Associated Press)

Her teammates rewarded her efforts by providing her some offensive support in the second period. Gifted a power play on a phantom tripping call against Finland’s Tanja Niskanen, the Americans capitalized when Barnes took a crisp pass from Hannah Brandt and whipped a shot from the lower edge of the right circle to beat goalie Anni Keisala at 3:39 of the second period. Hilary Knight converted the rebound of a shot by Savannah Harmon for a 2-0 lead at 18:53.

Hayley Scamurra tipped a shot by Barnes for a 3-0 lead at 15:20 of the third period, which proved important when Finland’s Susanna Tapani got a lucky bounce and cut the U.S. lead to 3-1 at 19:34. Abby Roque put the game away with an empty-net goal with five seconds left in the third period.

“To get to this point and have the performance that we did tonight is awesome,” said Cavallini, who made 25 saves. “It was really fun to watch the team working at the other end, continuing to get shots, continuing to create opportunities. Defensively they were awesome, blocking shots, picking up sticks, making my job pretty easy.

“It’s exciting now to be able to put that game past us with a big win and move on to the next game and set out for what we’ve been here to accomplish.”

The Americans never get tired of testing themselves against the only other country that has won a women’s Olympic or world title. “I think it’s one of the best rivalries in sports,” Barnes said. “I’m definitely looking forward to playing against a great Canadian team.”

Knight, a four-time Olympian, never gets tired of seeing Canada, either. “It’s wonderful hockey, it’s the most beautiful rivalry in sport,” said Knight, who tied Jenny Potter and Angela Ruggiero for most Olympic contests played in U.S. hockey history with her 21st appearance. Knight also moved into second place in U.S. career scoring with 26 points, behind Potter’s 32.

“It gets the best and the worst out of both of us at the same time,” Knight said. “It’s a wonderful game.”

And no less wonderful because it was expected. “I’m confident. I told our group I like the way we’re playing. I know that we’re going to be prepared,” U.S. coach Joel Johnson said. “I just feel really good about how we match up against Canada.”

Once more, with feeling, for a rivalry like few others.

Once more, with feeling.