For once, the biggest rivalry in all of the Olympics is being played out in two stages.
It’s a double dose of good stuff, as the women’s hockey teams from the United States and Canada demonstrated again Wednesday in preliminary play. The more often they meet, the better.
"If we play Canada every single day," said U.S. forward Hilary Knight, "I’d love that."
In this episode, Canada overtook the Americans with three third-period goals in a 3-2 victory that defied the buildup to the Olympics. The outcome added to the intrigue of the presumed gold medal game next week, after organizers assigned the Americans and Canadians to the same pool in these Games.
The unusual format is designed to avoid the ridiculous results that made a mockery of the tournament’s early stages in Vancouver in 2010, when the two dominant teams outscored their opponents by a combined 73-2.
Four years later and thousands of miles removed from Canada’s home ice, not much appears to have changed at the top. The Americans may have showed their talent and toughness in winning the last four games of an exhibition tour, but Canada delivered when it counted — as much as any first-week game could matter, as the teams were playing merely for semifinal seeding.
These teams never kid around, though. Other women in the Games speak of camaraderie among contestants, but none of that stuff exists between the USA and Canada. The women need each other, for the sake of competition, but they don’t have to like each other.
The rivalry is unlike anything in the Games. In contrast to the men’s tournament, with NHL players who show up and compete for 11 days, the women’s event features teams that spend several months together, gearing up for this opportunity. In the case of the USA and Canada, that means a series of meetings, just to get ready for the real thing.
Players fought at the end of two exhibition games, framing the rivalry that resumed at Shayba Arena. U.S. forward Kendall Coyne predicted "a bloodbath, obviously" — meaning intense hockey, not necessarily more brawling in a women’s sport that prohibits body checking.
That’s what unfolded during the first two periods, with the Americans scoring via Knight’s redirection of Anne Schleper’s shot. Canada dominated the third period with two goals from Meghan Agosta and another from Hayley Wickenheiser, before Schleper scored with 65 seconds left.
U.S. goaltender Jessie Vetter bobbed her head to the opening riff of Metallica’s "Enter Sandman" as she skated in the warmup. She clearly was revved up and ready, and so was everybody in the building, anticipating a riveting game. Vetter made some outstanding saves in the first two periods, but the U.S. defense let her down and she allowed a soft, if controversial, goal that gave Canada the lead.
The Americans thought the whistle blew, but the fact is the puck somehow dribbled under Vetter and into the net. The goal was credited to Wickenheiser, who has played all in five Olympic women’s tournaments.
The U.S. team claimed the inaugural event in 1998, but the Canadians responded in West Valley City in 2002 and have not stopped winning on this stage. The Americans’ showing in the recent exhibition series included a 6-1 victory, and Canada’s apparent disarray — the team’s coach resigned in mid-December and was replaced by former NHL coach Kevin Dineen — suggested the Olympics would be a U.S. success.
Not so, judging by Wednesday’s outcome. Things could change next week, but right now, Canada reigns in this rivalry.
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