Two sentiments have been uttered by many an intrigued observer ahead of Saturday night's gold-medal final between the two powerhouses in women's hockey. "Wow, this U.S. team is fast" and "Canada is going to come out looking for vengeance."
The undefeated, top-seeded American team will meet Canada for gold at the IIHF Women's World Hockey Championship, and the shock of the 9-2 pounding delivered to its slow-starting Canadian rival in the preliminary round still lingers in the air. The U.S. came out flying before a roaring American crowd last Saturday and popped in five unanswered goals in the first period. Their fast-paced scoring hasn't stopped all week. Second-seeded Canada says merely weathering the first five minutes of the U.S attack won't be enough – the Canadians have to push back from the word go.
The American dominance in this week's tournament is glaring on paper. Through four games, Canada has outscored its opponents 24-13, while the U.S. has outscored its foes 39-2. In fact, Team USA leads the tournament in every key statistical category, popping in 12 power-play goals, taking the fewest penalties and scoring the most short-handed goals (two, where Canada didn't score any). Team USA hasn't allowed a power-play goal all week, where Canada let in six. The U.S. has taken 221 shots this week, far more than any other team, including Canada who ripped 148.
"Simply, speed kills, and when we can bust around defencemen with speed, it's to our advantage," said U.S forward Hilary Knight, who has five goals this week, two of them versus Canada. "When things happen more quickly, we get more pucks in the net."
Canada feels its roster is gelling far better now than it was opening the tournament a week ago. Friday, it beat Finland 5-1 in the semi-final, an improvement on the 3-2 nail-biter the two had played just days earlier. Canada feels prepared to slow the American quickness this time.
"We have to kill their speed in the neutral zone. If you can do that, then they have to get into chipping and chasing," said Canadian head coach Dan Church after Saturday's morning skate. "The U.S. is so skilled, their forwards can get into the danger area. Their MO is to hunt for rebounds. I'm not alarmed by the number of shots they intend to take. They'll shoot from everywhere, but for us, we'll concentrate on forcing them to shoot from the perimeter instead of the danger zone."
The Canadians hope to show they are better than they were earlier this week, better than the team who has settled for three world championship silver medals in recent years. But the American players still feel the pain of their shortcomings at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
"Anyone that was in Vancouver felt real heartbreak," Knight said. "It put a seed in my mind, a hunger that I want to be better. We didn't get enough shots on net versus Canada in Vancouver, we didn't break the goalie. We sat in the locker room and wished for this and that, but that's over now. We want to make sure we capture gold here."
The two rivals have met in all 13 of the gold-medal finals in tournament history dating back to 1990, with Canada winning nine of them.
"It's going to be a great game. You never know what will happen in this game. It's the best women's hockey game you can watch, They are going to come out like a wounded bear after that first loss to us, so we have to be ready for it and try to match that energy."