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Amanda Kessel, Team USA send message for Sochi 2014 with unprecedented women’s worlds win on Canadian ice

Sarah Vaillancourt (left) gets support from Tessa Bonhomme following Canada's loss at the women's world hockey …

There is more to this than a payback angle, more to it than a Kessel scoring the game-winner in the Ottawa Senators' rink to dash the hopes of the Maple Leaf.

That sweet spot in time — the friendly bounce for Team USA by hobbled Hayley Wickenheiser at centre ice that sent Amanda Kessel off to the races to beat Shannon Szabados for the gold medal-winning goal early in the final frame — sums up the state of affairs for both Team USA and Team Canada at the IIHF women’s world hockey championship. One year out from the 2014 Sochi Olympics where Canada will be far, far away from the home-crowd advantage it had for the past week at Scotiabank Place, the Americans won the worlds on Canadian ice for the first time. Talk about a springboard into Sochi for the younger Yanks and a crossroads for Team Canada. Youth beat experience, just like some forecast from the dawn of the tournament.

“It’s great for us, because we played against a crowd that was quite hostile in a good way,” Team USA captain Julie Chu, the only 30-something wearing stars and stripes, said. “Just being able to feel that pressure, because every time Canada touched the puck, even if they were in their D zone coming out, you could hear it and you would think, ‘are they going to score a goal at this moment?’ Having our players have that opportunity to feel that pressure and take a deep breath and make the smart play, it’s really valuable for us.”

The scary thought for Canada is that Kessel and Brianna Decker, the major causes for why 13,776 at Scotiabank Place who showed up en masse in red and white left feeling blue, are only getting started on the international stage. The 21-year-old linemates each finished off 2-on-1 rushes for goals.

Team USA star Brianna Decker (Chris Roussakis for Yahoo! Canada Sports)“Our younger players, they’re great – that’s all I can say,” Chu added. “They’re playing well beyond their years and I’m fortunate to still be on this team because they’re pushing the envelope every day. Brianna Decker, Amanda Kessel had incredible tournaments and they’re only going to mature more and when they do, it’s going to be incredible to see what they are capable of.”

Meantime, Team Canada is left searching for answers. They were outplayed in both games against their only true competition, needing a two-goal third-period comeback and some shootout savvy to beat Team USA in the teams' first meeting of the tourney on April 2.

“It’s us,” veteran left wing Caroline Ouellette, whose power-play goal late in the second period forged a 2-2 tie after 40, said matter-of-factly. “We weren't good enough, the defence, the forwards, in our transition, in our scoring, in our creating. It’s such a different game from when we play the other teams. We’re not good enough right now to beat the U.S., in my opinion.

“They were poised with the puck, they made us chase around, I’d be curious to see the puck possession stats … we weren't able to connect two passes in a row.”

For those scoring at home, the U.S. has won two of three worlds during this Olympic quadrennial. Canada won the 2012 gold in Burlington, Vt., with a dramatic 5-4 overtime win, but that came after a 9-2 rude awakening in the tourney opener. Granted, there is, as Team USA’s Meghan Duggan put it, an “any given day” phenomenon when the only two teams who are head and shoulders above everyone else in women’s hockey play. However, the U.S., with an average age of 23 to Canada’s ripe old 26, proved a point.

“This win really gives us some confidence and momentum and it shows us what we need to do,” said Kessel, whose older brother Phil Kessel stars for the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We hadn’t been working in this tournament as well we like to. There was just that tuning-up we needed… it’s not how you start the tournament, it’s how you finish it.

“It shows that our program is going in the right direction.”

‘Don’t want to play for a bounce’

Wickenheiser played hurt during the tournament for Canada (Chris Roussakis for Yahoo! Canada Sports)The rivals’ last three meetings at worlds have all been one-goal games. Wickenheiser, who gamely made it back for the medal round after injuring her back vs. Team USA, was not going in for any sugarcoating. Canada had only 16 shots on goal on the night. On a percentage basis, that will not do on many nights. (Canada did hit two posts in the first period, but it also needed Szabados to thwart a Decker breakaway to get out of the frame with a 1-0 lead.)

“We don’t want to play for a bounce anymore,” Wickenheiser said. “We want to be solid and take away wins, not just trade wins and losses with them.”

Starting in May, 28 players will begin a year-long Team Canada centralization program to get ready for the Olympics. Know this much: the to-do list will be a lot longer.

“Tonight they were the better team in almost every aspect,” Team Canada coach Dan Church said. “What we have to figure out is why we weren’t ready to play tonight.”

“I thought we were a little bit on our heels,” Church added. “They kept the game pretty simple early on, they were playing chip-and-chase hockey. When they didn’t have a pass, they would get it in deep and put pressure on defenders. We were reacting and they were acting.”

All in all, it was a rough tournament for Canada, especially for Wickenheiser. The captain pushed herself to be tournament-ready after injuring her knee while playing for the Calgary Dinos in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport championship fewer than 3½ weeks before the worlds. She lasted less than half a game before hurting her back vs. the U.S., but made it back for Monday’s semifinal vs. Russia.

“It was probably one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” she said. “I think I went through a lot to play again. I was happy to be on the ice.”

Canada has a streak of three gold medals on the line heading into Sochi. As Wickenheiser alluded to, the worlds and the Olympics are different beasts. There is much more prep time, that much more support from Hockey Canada to get ready for a short tournament. Will that help Canada come up with a counterpoint?

“We hope so,” Wickenheiser said.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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