Canada is riding a three-game winning streak against the U.S. in women's hockey, but it hasn't been all smooth sailing for the Canadian women this winter.
Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored twice in Canada's win over the U.S. in the 2010 Olympic final, remains sidelined for Thursday's game in Calgary against the Americans because of a high ankle sprain.
The talented, speedy forward from Beauceville, Que., is expected to be an impact player for the Canadian women again as they prepare to defend the gold in Sochi, Russia, in February.
However, the 22-year-old has appeared in just a handful of Canada's 32 games since September and none against the United States.
"It's been a tough one for sure," Poulin said Wednesday at the Markin MacPhail Centre. "It's been almost three months now I've been out. It's tough, but I guess it's part of the game and it helps me build my mental toughness.
"It's always hard to miss a game, especially when you play the U.S."
An opposing player landed on the outside of her left ankle during a tournament against midget triple-A men's teams in September. Poulin re-injured the ankle in her third game back in November.
Poulin has set Dec. 28, when Canada plays the U.S. in St. Paul, Minn., as the next target date of her return.
"As a player, you want to play as soon as possible, but as an organization we have to make sure she's 100 per cent ready before she steps on the ice," assistant coach Danielle Goyette said.
"For her, the most important thing is to get stronger and when she's on the ice, she's 100 per cent confident, not just strong."
The exhibition game in Calgary is the third of six between Canada and the U.S. this winter as both countries train full-time for the Winter Games.
They'll square off again Dec. 20 in Grand Forks, N.D., followed by the game in Minnesota and then Dec. 30 in Toronto.
The archrivals have met in the final of every world championship with the U.S. winning four of the last five. Canada owns the last three Olympic gold medals, however.
Canada edged the Americans 3-2 in Burlington, Vt., on Oct. 12 and doubled them 6-3 in Boisbriand, Que., on Oct. 17.
Canada also prevailed 4-2 in the preliminary round of the Four Nations Cup on Nov. 6. An expected rematch versus the U.S. in the tournament final didn't materialize. Finland upset the Americans 3-0 to advance to the championship game against Canada.
"As of this year, they haven't won a game against us, so they're going to be really itching to go and want to beat us on our home soil," forward Rebecca Johnston said.
"I think what's key for us is that first five minutes to come out as hard as we can and play as best as we can in those five minutes to dictate the game."
The U.S. boasts individual speed and skill, which makes them lethal on the power play. But their overall team game lags behind the Canadians, who have played 21 games against men's teams in the Alberta Midget Hockey League.
Those games approximate the pace of competition against the U.S. women. The American women haven't faced that type of competition as often as Canada, so the Canadians were the more battle-hardened team in their three previous meetings.
"When I look at the games we've played against the midget triple-A, even after a month playing against them and then playing the U.S., it helped us so much," said Goyette.
Canada plays AMHL games on a narrower North American ice surface. The Calgary game will be played on the wider, international ice. The Olympic tournament will also be played on the big ice.
"All the games we play against the midget boys are all on the small ice," Goyette said. "Everything is faster and it makes our girls work harder and move the puck faster in a smaller space.
"For us, this game is going to be on the big ice. We're going to have more time to make plays and maybe make better plays than we do against the midget boys."
While these exhibition games against the U.S. are key in Canada's preparation, veteran forward Hayley Wickenheiser knows from experience the game that matters the most is Feb. 20 in Sochi.
The U.S. defeated Canada eight straight times heading into the 2002 gold medal game in Salt Lake City, Utah, but the Canadians were the victors in the final.
"I think there's a pretty good awareness in the room that on any given day, anything can happen and the Olympics comes down to one game," Wickenheiser said.
"Really, anything you've done previously, it doesn't matter, but it does matter because it helps with preparation and confidence and sticking to the game plan as we move forward."
Head coach Dan Church will release a defenceman and two forwards when he names his 21-player Olympic roster later this month. He cut Winnipeg forward Jenelle Kohanchuk and defencemen Tessa Bonhomme of Sudbury, Ont., and Brigette Lacquette of Waterhen, Man., on Nov. 12.
The U.S. women are based in Connecticut and released forward Kate Buesser and defender Jincy Dunne last week. Their Olympic women's team will be announced Jan. 1 on NBC during the NHL's Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich.
They scheduled a practice in Boston on Wednesday prior to travelling to Calgary.
Assistant coaches Goyette and Lisa Haley ran Canada's practice Wednesday as Church attended to what a Hockey Canada spokesperson said was "a personal matter."
Goaltenders Shannon Szabados of Edmonton, Charline Labonte of Boisbriand and Genevieve Lacasse of Kingston, Ont., have each been given a start against the U.S. and won.
Canadian forward Haley Irwin of Thunder Bay, Ont., will sit out Thursday's game as she recovers from dental surgery. Poulin is wearing a plastic cast on her left ankle.
She's recently had a treatment called platelet-rich plasma therapy (PRP), in which blood is withdrawn from the body, spun in a centrifuge to isolate the platelets, and injected into the injured area to speed the body's natural healing response.
PRP was once a banned procedure by the World Anti-Doping Agency, but was taken off the prohibited list in 2011 because of a lack of evidence that it aided performance.