Olympics

Canada's women's hockey team can't rest on reputation

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CBC
2/7/2014 8:12:52 PM
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Barring a miracle – and that is not an exaggeration – it will be Canada versus the United States in the women's hockey gold medal game Feb. 20 in Sochi.

Why?

Because they always meet in the final, right? Well, nearly always. Sweden somehow managed to make it into the gold medal game at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. But in the 19 Olympic and World Championship final games since women's hockey arrived on the international stage in 1999, it has been Canada against the United States 18 times.

Canada begins by facing Switzerland on Saturday at 8:00 a.m. in their first game of the tournament - watch it live on CBC TV and streaming at cbc.ca/olympics.

The mere fact Canada has won the past three of four gold medals at the Olympics – losing only in Nagano in 1998 – would make them the favorites in the eyes of many. However, their victories in the last three Olympic Games really have nothing to do with this year's tournament.

More relevant is the fact the United States defeated Canada in the last four meetings of their seven-game pre-Olympic exhibition series.

Canada is the defending Olympic champion, but the Americans have a little swagger. Dan Church knows that as well as anybody.

Church resigned as coach of the Canadian women's Olympic team in December and was replaced by former Florida Panthers coach Kevin Dineen.

Team USA is deep at every position. They also have scoring at every position – forward and defence – and they have a lot of speed.

“Their young forwards especially are extremely quick,” Church said. “If you give them room in the neutral zone they'll always find a way to create. They are really gifted at getting the puck into the scoring area; even if it's not a direct shot just getting it there so now your defenders and goaltender really have to be on top of things. They are always creating offence with their speed.”

Canada will need to have a forward to force the Americans to one half of the ice surface and break off their speed and their ability to attack or counterattack.

Scoring problems

Even if its overall team speed doesn't match that of the United States, Canada traditionally can hold its own with any team in the world in terms of offence, and is better than most. That said, Canada has had some difficulty scoring, particularly against the United States, leading up to the Sochi Games.

Rebecca Johnston, a scoring machine at Cornell for four seasons, has speed and skill and the ability to take it to the front of the net. The 25-year-old had a goal and six points in five games at the 2010 Olympics and will be expected to exceed those numbers this year.

Jenn Wakefield, 24, has plenty of international experience, but is making her Olympic debut. She is another go-to forward for Canada.

Of course there are also veterans Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford and Caroline Ouellette, all of whom can dominate a game. Wickenheiser in particular can be a dangerous scorer when she is shooting the puck. Hefford is strong around the net and Ouellette remains an offensive catalyst.

As for Canada's young players, Natalie Spooner is a power forward with great hands and Megan Agosta-Marciano can be a world beater when she's playing at her best.

Countering for Team USA will be Kelli Stack. She is a game-breaker and every time she's on the ice she can create for herself and her teammates. Stack has great vision.

“She is an offensive threat every time she touches the puck,” Church said. “You always have to worry about her. She is the offensive catalyst for the team.”

Amanda Kessel, the younger sister of Toronto Maple Leafs star Phil, is also a really strong player. Like her brother, she has speed to burn and plenty of offensive upside. She was the collegiate national player of the year with the University of Minnesota in 2013.

Physically, Canada has an edge over the United States, but the Americans do not fear Canada's physical game - just as Canada believes it can overcome USA's speed.

In the end, it could come down to goaltending. Canada believes its three goalies, Shannon Szabados, Charline Labonte and Genevieve Lacasse, could all backstop the team to a gold in Sochi. Szabados will be the starter and is looking for her second Olympic gold medal as a starter.

Early in the season it seemed like Team USA was leaning toward Jessie Vetter getting the job as the starter, but down the stretch, Molly Schaus got more action. Schaus is better technically, but Vetter is very athletic. The starter will likely be the goalie the coaching staff feels is the hotter of the two entering the tournament.

The bottom line for Canada is that it can win a fourth straight gold in Sochi, but reputation at this tournament means squat. It's not about what was; it's about what is.

Kevin Dineen (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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