SOCHI, Russia — Kevin Dineen took a deep breath into the microphone.
“Oh, boy,” he said.
The semifinals had been over for mere minutes Monday, and already the hype had begun for the women’s hockey final between the United States and Canada on Thursday. The archrivals are going at it again.
The Canadians have won three straight Olympic gold medals. The Canadians just beat the Americans in the preliminary round last week, 3-2.
But the Americans won four straight games against the Canadians before that – and unlike the Canadians, they sure didn’t need to win that one to boost their confidence. They feel like they’re due, like they’re younger, like they’re faster.
“We love playing against the best in the world,” said U.S. forward Kelli Stack. “I don’t think they can beat us three times in a row, especially with what’s on the line.”
Stack said the Canadian defense was “pretty shaky when you give them a lot of pressure,” that the Americans would forecheck as hard as they could and make the Canadians “turn pucks over below the goal line.”
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The Canadian coach did not like it when a reporter relayed Stack’s comments in a press conference.
“You know what?” Dineen said. “You’re trying to get me to bite, and I’m not big on that. Let’s play the game. Let’s not do that song and dance.
“We’ve got some of the best players in the world. We come to play every time we step on the ice, and the results will speak for themselves. So you can sit there and you can posture and you can say all the things you want. At the end of it, let’s play the game and see where we go from there.”
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This is going to be fun. Women’s hockey has been in the Olympics five times, and this is the fourth time the United States and Canada have met in the final.
The Americans won in 1998. The Canadians won in 2002. The Canadians beat the Swedes in 2006, while the Americans settled for bronze. Then the Canadians beat the Americans again in 2010.
The state of women’s hockey is improving around the world. It really is. But the Americans and the Canadians are still far in front of everyone else. Look at the semis: The Americans beat the Swedes, 6-1, while outshooting them, 70-9.
Yes, you read that right. They outshot them, 70-9.
The Canadians beat the Swiss, 3-1. It was a more competitive game, especially after the Swiss scored in the second period and starting skating like they thought they could win. Still, the Canadians jumped out to a 3-0 lead and 24-6 shot advantage. They outshot the Swiss, 48-22, and could have won by a much larger margin if not for goaltender Florence Schelling, who looked like a Swiss Dominik Hasek.
“I’m very proud to be disappointed about our losing,” said Swiss coach Rene Kammerer.
Yes, you read that right. Kammerer was proud his team had gotten to the point that he would not consider a 3-1 loss a moral victory.
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The rest of the world can keep developing step by step. But there are no moral victories when it comes to the United States and Canada, and until some other countries catch up, this is the one and only matchup that really matters.
These women just plain don’t like each other. They fought during the season. The Americans didn’t bring their best against the Canadians in the prelims – coach Katey Stone said she was “indifferent” about their performance – but the loss seemed to sting them. It seemed to wake them up. They clearly wanted another shot.
“I think the storybook is in our favor, just losing that first game and going back and getting them the second time,” said U.S. defenseman Anne Schleper. “We can’t rely on that at all, and we won’t. None of us do. We’re just really focused on getting out there and doing it, taking charge.”
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The Canadians did bring their best in the prelims, and after a tumultuous season – a power clash atop the program, the stunning resignation of coach Dan Church, the quick hiring of Dineen, the four straight losses to the Americans and more – the win seemed to boost them.
They have tons of experience. Hayley Wickenheiser and Jayna Hefford have now clinched their fifth Olympic medals, tying them for second-most in Canadian Winter Games history. If they beat the Americans, they will be the first Canadians ever to win four golds in the Winter Games. They have other veterans, too, like Caroline Ouellette, Meghan Agosta, Gillian Apps.
“I just believe in the group we have in our room,” Wickenheiser said. “We have a lot of players who know what it takes to win, and we’ve done it before.”
They know being nervous is normal. They know how to turn that energy into a positive. They know the Americans are going to come out flying, that it’s going to be a fast game, that they need to play well defensively, that they need to cycle as much as they can in the offensive end.
“We expect them to be better,” said Ouellette, the captain. “I think we can also be better.”
In women’s hockey, it doesn’t get better than this.
“It’s the gold-medal game,” Schleper said, “and it should be, right?”
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