Maturity vs. speed: Previewing women's Canada-U.S. hockey final
Canada goalie Shannon Szabados centre, celebrates with teammates Jocelyne Larocque (3) and Laura Fortino (8) after defeating Switzerland 3-1 in semifinal women's Olympic hockey action at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia on Monday, February 17, 2014. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, February 19, 2014 8:11AM EST
SOCHI, Russia -- To win a fourth straight Olympic gold medal, the Canadian women's hockey team must leverage its big-game experience up front to overcome the superior speed of the United States.
Canada's dozen forwards have a combined 18 previous appearances at the Winter Olympics among them compared to seven among the American forwards.
On defence, previous Winter Games experience is equal between the two countries. Both sides posses seasoned goaltenders.
Thursday's final at the Bolshoy Ice Dome is about executing in a vice of pressure for both countries.
The U.S. wants to reclaim the gold it won in 1998 and this year's team is young and relentless.
If there is a crack in their armour, it was revealed in Canada's 3-2 victory in the preliminary round. Taking a 1-0 lead into the third period, the Americans lost their composure when Canada equalized early in the second and pulled ahead less than two minutes later.
So it will be up to three-time gold medallists Caroline Ouellette, Hayley Wickenheiser and Jayna Hefford, as well as third-time Olympians Meghan Agosta-Marciano and Gillian Apps to shepherd Canada through the defining moment or moments of the gold-medal game.
"I can bring some things to the table, but don't kid yourself," Dineen said. "I'm going to lean a little bit on Caroline Ouellette, Jayna Hefford, Hayley Wickenheiser and Gillian Apps. Great players who have been in an Olympics or two. They've sat in this seat before.
"There's a lot of people in that locker-room that have a pretty special jewellery collection."
Canada's win over the U.S. in the round robin ended a four-game losing streak for the Americans, but it doesn't necessarily give Canada the upper hand Thursday.
The Olympic tournament format, which was introduced at the world championship two years ago, has pitted the women's hockey heavyweights against each other in the preliminary round before a second meeting in the final.
Each country has won the round-robin matchup, only to lose the final in 2012 and 2013.
The Canadian women played more competitive games than the United States before their arrival in Sochi. The Alberta Midget Hockey League is similar in pace to games against the U.S. women, so Canada's women have rehearsed many of the situations that can arise Thursday.
The U.S. beat Canada in four of the last five world championship finals with Jessie Vetter in net, so expect Vetter in their goal Thursday.
The choice is less clear for Canada. Although Shannon Szabados has been Canada's starter of record since her 28-save shutout in Vancouver four years ago, Charline Labonte was outstanding in the win over the U.S. last week.
Labonte is a two-time Olympian and earned the victory in the 2006 Olympic final against Sweden. Dineen gave no hint Wednesday on which goalie would get the nod, but when asked if it was a critical decision he said "Yes. It is."
The U.S. has talked up its youth, while the Canadians have emphasized their veteran poise during this tournament.
"It certainly helps to have that Olympic experience," Ouellette said. "You've been in those big games. You know how you're going to feel.
"You know it's going to be normal to be nervous at first and you are able to channel that energy, that nervousness into positive energy and make sure everyone around is calm and play up to their potential, play with confidence.
"It's our role as veterans to make sure everyone is calm, everyone is ready to go."
The U.S. boasts several players from teams that won recent world championship finals against Canada, so they too feel they have battle-hardened personnel.
Three-time Olympian Julie Chu is the most experienced player in the U.S. lineup. She pointed out that her team beat Canada in last year's world final in Ottawa in front of thousands of pro-Canadian fans at Canadian Tire Centre.
"I don't think the moment is too big for any of us right now," American defenceman Anne Schleper said. "We're very confident and mentally in a really good place."
Where Canada is vulnerable is on the back end.
Catherine Ward and Meaghan Mikkelson are the only two defenders among the six who played in Vancouver.
Gaps opened in Canada's defence when Mikkelson didn't play in Monday's 3-1 semifinal win against the Swiss. Dineen wasn't about to disclose why she was scratched at this point in the tournament.
Mikkelson participated fully in Wednesday's practice and Dineen said she will play against the U.S.
American forward Kelli Stack said earlier this week that Canada's defence is their weakness and they intend to exploit it.
The line of Amanda Kessell, younger sister of Maple Leafs forward Phil, Brianna Decker and Kendall Coyne is the most explosive trio in the tournament.
The Americans are lethal on the power play because of their quickness with the puck. They lead the tournament with five power-play goals for a 35 per cent success rate compared to Canada's 20.
Thursday's game is another chapter in one of sport's most enduring rivalries. Ouellette got a head start on delivering a message of composure to her teammates.
"It's just a hockey game," the Canadian captain said. "It is a hockey game that means a lot, but if we can just see it as a great opportunity to be the best that we can be and accomplish our biggest dream, then we'll play with more confidence."