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Canadian sledge hockey team hoping to end season by defeating U.S. rivals

Canada's Kevin Rempel, middle, and Billy Bridges fight for the puck with Nikko Landeros of the U.S. during the semi-final sledge hockey game at the 2014 Sochi Winter Paralympic Games. The Canadians will play the United States this week at the inaugural Pan Pacific Championships in Buffalo, N.Y.

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters

With another disappointing loss to the Americans still fresh in their minds, Canada's sledge hockey players are getting another shot at taking down their archrivals.

The Canadians will play the United States this week at the inaugural Pan Pacific Championships in Buffalo, N.Y. Canada will be looking for a positive end to the season after losing 3-2 in overtime to the United States in the final of the World Sledge Hockey Challenge in January.

"We got a second chance to finish the season on a positive note, that's what you look at heading into the Pan Pacific," Canada coach Ken Babey said.

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The Canadians missed an opportunity for a statement win over the Americans at the Challenge at Bridgewater, N.S., coming back from 2-0 down to send the final to overtime before losing.

"We left [the Challenge] with a bit of a sour taste in our mouths because we felt we played good enough to win that gold-medal game," Babey said.

"If we won in Bridgewater it would have been a fantastic comeback for us," veteran Brad Bowden, who sparked the rally with Canada's first goal in the championship game, said. "A lot of us knew we could have put up a better fight.

"We had a close game, but we could have played better."

Canada and the United States have dominated the podium for the past decade at almost every international event. But since the Canadians last won Paralympic gold at the 2006 Turin Games, the Americans have been on top.

The United States eliminated Canada in the semifinals at the 2014 Sochi Games en route to their second straight Paralympic gold. The Americans also beat Canada in the gold-medal game at the 2015 world championship. The Canadians did earn a 3-2 shootout victory over their foes in preliminary action at the past sledge challenge – their first win over the United States in an IPC event since 2013 – but it meant little to the team after falling in the final.

The United States has risen to the top in sledge hockey in large part because of its speed. Canada is considered to be a quick team on the international stage, too, but still has some work to do to get past the Americans.

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"The Americans are loaded with a lot of speed, it's the nature of their team," Babey said. "Speed is a key element, speeds can kill sort of speak, so we have to get faster.

"We're taking the approach of a smart, fast team. Not one line, not one player will lead us to victory, we have to play as a unit."

The Canadians open the four-team Pan Pacific Championships on Tuesday against South Korea before meeting the Americans on Wednesday.

The other team Canada will face in the round robin is Team Pan Pacific – a mixed roster consisting of Japanese, American and Canadian development players and with no world championship on the schedule this season, Babey and his staff have used the time to rate the skill level of players and develop a potential roster for the 2018 Paralympic Games in South Korea.

Canada's top sledge athletes met for a training camp in Calgary in February before heading to Toronto for a development camp in early March. The Pan Pacific Championship will not only give Babey's squad a chance for some redemption against the Americans, but an opportunity to work towards the ultimate goal of returning to the top of the podium in Pyeongchang.

"We always look at going into every tournament, every time you represent Canada you look to win, secondary is we want to develop our team for 2018," Babey said. "We are trying to balance that, but I think with all the work done this year that we look at this like a year-end playoffs."

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Both the Canadian and American squads are bringing their top players for the Pan Pacific Championship, setting up what could be one final showdown this season between the powerhouses for another tournament medal.

"I think for us it's a last chance to set a pace and kind of see where we are at. Just leave it all out there before summer training," Bowden said, who serves as an alternate captain. "We are pushing ourselves to be better at this tournament. We haven't forgotten what we need to do and how much better we need to be."

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