At this stage of the season it's more about the process than the results.

So the fact Canada's national women's hockey team managed a split in the first two games of a six-game series against the highly regarded United States leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea is neither good nor bad.

And the fact Team Canada has a .500 record (2-2-1) in five games against boys' triple-A teams in the Alberta Midget Hockey League is neither here nor there.

All Canadian coach Laura Schuler cares about is that her players are making progress. In that regard, Schuler is encouraged.

"The one thing about this team is they're like sponges," she said. "They are so coachable and great people. We have a great team culture and they are really eager to learn so it makes coming to work that much more special when you have people that really want to push the limit and see how far they can go."

Schuler will have a better idea how her team stacks up against the United States, Sweden and Finland when the four teams gather in Tampa, Fla., for the Four Nations Cup Nov. 7-12. The United States is the two-time defending champion of the tournament and has won the past four world championship titles.

Team Canada is housed in Calgary — 25 skaters and three goaltenders — while preparing for the Olympic Games. Three skaters will ultimately be released from the team prior to the Games, so there is a healthy competition for jobs.

"I know we have a real deep pool and as we move forward it's going to be difficult to make final decisions," Schuler said. "But thank goodness we have the centralization process and especially all the games against the AMHL teams to help us make sure we are headed in the right direction."


Coach Laura Schuler is preaching speed as a key to Canada's success at the 2018 Olympics. (Kevin Light Photography/CBC)

Need for speed

Schuler added the games against the midget boys triple-A teams have been tough, but invaluable.

"The boys are really, really fast, but one thing about our team is we want to become a team that is capable of playing with speed," Schuler said. "For us it's all about foot speed, gap speed, head speed and puck speed. The boys are really forcing us to make decisions faster and move pucks faster."

It's no secret that Canada and the U.S. are the top two seeds for Pyeongchang. In five Olympics since women's hockey was accepted into the Games, they have met for the gold medal four times — the exception being 2006, when Canada defeated Sweden for gold and the U.S. finished third. The Americans won the first-ever gold medal in women's Olympic hockey in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, but Canada has won the past four.

Team Canada stumbled in the opening leg of their six-game pre-Olympics series of exhibitions against the United States, losing 5-2 in Quebec City on Oct. 22 with a peformance that Schuler called "an embarassment to our country." However, the Canadians rebounded with a 5-1 victory three nights later in Boston.

"Thank goodness our team showed a lot of resiliency and we bounced back in Boston," Schuler said. "It was good to see the girls come together and perform how they know they can perform."


Meghan Agosta, left, Natalie Spooner, centre, and Fortino helped Canada rebound from a lopsided loss to beat the rival Americans in Boston in the second leg of their six-game pre-Olympics exhibition series. (Steven Senne/The Associated Press)

Fortino steps up

Aside from playing the game with speed, Schuler has asked her defencemen to get more involved in the play in the offensive zone and not just on the rush. Veteran defender Laura Fortino has taken the request to heart and leads her team with four assists. She is second to Natalie Spooner in points with six. Spooner has seven.

"I have been really happy with [Fortino's] play," Schuler said. "She has really stepped up. She has definitely been a player that has really bought into it. She's one of those players that is extremely coachable, always wants to do the little thing to make her game better."

Fortino is preparing to play in her fourth Four Nations Cup and said the tournament is an important step in an Olympic season.

"I'm glad they keep this tournament within a centralization year because it's a good stepping stone for us and a great learning experience to see where our team is at," said the 26-year-old from Hamilton, Ont. "It's already November and we've put in three months of work so we need to see where we still have to improve."

Fortino helped Canada win the gold medal in Sochi, Russia in 2014 and is taking part in her second centralization program. It helps, she said, that now she knows what to expect as the Games draw near.

"I don't like using the word comfortable," Fortino said. "I always feel like I have to earn my spot so I don't take anything for granted. But I'm trying to be somebody who leads by example and be that consistent, well-rounded player and show the younger girls what it takes to win a gold medal."

It could be argued the games against the boys in Alberta do more to help Canada improve its game, but Schuler said the Four Nations Cup has value, too.

"We're really excited to get the chance to play the other countries, to have a look at what Finland and Sweden have," the coach said. "I expect all the games to be super competitive and there will be opportunities for us to continue to look at what we are good at and where we need to keep getting better."

Players from Team USA to watch at the 4 Nations Cup include six that played in the 2014 Olympic Games: Megan Bozak, Lee Stecklein, Alex Carpenter, Kendall Coyne, Brianna Decker and Amanda Kessel, the sister of Pittsburgh Penguins star Phil Kessel. Alex Rigsby, the final cut from the 2014 Olympic team, will be in goal for the United States.