Women's hockey: U.S. has the ranking, but Canada is again defending the gold
Americans have been the better team in the 4 years since Sochi
By Mike Brophy, CBC Sports
Don't expect the Canadian women's hockey team to be chanting, "We're No. 2! We're No. 2," as they head into their Olympic opener against the Russian team on Sunday (watch live on olympics.cbc.ca and the CBC Olympics app at 7:10 a.m. ET).
Canada might be ranked No. 2 by the International Ice Hockey Federation, but in its heart, the team feels its the one to beat.
Not only has Canada won four consecutive Olympic gold medals, it has also defeated the No. 1-ranked United States in four of the past five Games. (Canada beat Sweden in the 2006 gold-medal game in Turin.) Never mind the powerful U.S. team has won the past four world championships (and seven of the past eight) and three consecutive 4 Nations Cup titles (five of seven); Canada feels good about its game heading into the Games.
It would be a shock if Canada and the U.S. did not face off in a one-game showdown for the gold medal on Feb. 22.
The Canadian team gathered in Calgary in mid-August and played a challenging series of games against midget AAA boys' teams, going 13-5-4, then beat the U.S. five times in a six-game series leading up to the Olympics.
Canada finished that series stronger than it started. It lost the first game of the series against the U.S., and then twice more at the 4 Nations Cup, including 5-1 in the final. But Canada rallied to win the final five games of their series.
Watch our 8-bit video of the Canada-U.S. rivalry:
"It feels good to play against the United States because they are a really good team and they are our rival," said Team Canada forward Rebecca Johnston. "For us to have those games before the Olympics gives us a sense of what their strengths and weaknesses are."
The Canadian roster includes 14 players who helped Canada defeat the U.S. 3-2 in overtime at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Canada will be led by superstar and captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored the game-winning goals in the gold-medal games of the past two Olympics. Goaltender Shannon Szabados, who backstopped Canada in the past two Olympic gold-medal games, is the likely starter, while veteran Meghan Agosta will be aiming to win her fourth Olympic gold.
Lest you think it is all smooth sailing for Canada, a few eyebrows were raised Jan. 30 when it was announced Perry Pearn would be joining the coaching staff. Pearn, an assistant coach in the NHL for 20 years, joins head coach Laura Schuler and assistant coaches Troy Ryan and Dwayne Gylywoychuk.
Is there a fear that Canada cannot win gold without input from Pearn?
"Perry has been working with our program since August and we are excited that he can officially join us at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games," said Melody Davidson, general manager of national women's team program.
It's not like Team Canada hasn't made late changes before. In 2014, Dan Church was released as head coach shortly before the Games began and replaced by Kevin Dineen and they went on to win gold.
Eight teams will compete in two divisions, with Canada, the U.S., Finland and Athletes from Russia (the IOC designation for clean Russian athletes after that country's Olympic organization was banned from the Games for doping infractions) in the A Group, while the B Group has Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and a team composed of players from North and South Korea.
It is the first time the two countries from the volatile Korean Peninsula have teamed up to perform together in the Olympics. At least three players from North Korea will dress in each game. The team is coached by Canadian Sarah Murray, the daughter of former Team Canada and NHL coach Andy Murray.
Canada's schedule for the preliminary round is:
- Feb. 11 vs. Athletes from Russia
- Feb. 13 vs. Finland
- Feb. 14 vs. United States
Team USA won the first Olympic gold medal in Nagano in 1998, but since has settled for silver three times and bronze once.
Despite dominating Canada prior to the recent six-game series, the United States made a couple of eye-opening decisions with its roster, cutting veterans Alex Carpenter — the daughter of former NHL star Bobby Carpenter — and Megan Bozek. Carpenter was the Patty Kazmaier Award winner as the best NCAA college women's hockey player in 2015 and has been a scoring force for the national team.
"The entire program cares a lot about (Bozek and Carpenter) and they've done phenomenal things for the program," said USA coach Robb Stauber. "But at the end of the day we're going to Korea for the Olympics and we have to make decisions that we think give us the best chance to win."
Watch Marie-Philip Poulin describe her stick-taping ritual:
High-profile players being cut prior to the Olympics is not a new story. In 2006 then-coach Ben Smith cut veteran Cammi Granato from the American team. In 1998 Canada cut veteran Angela James and lost in the gold-medal game to the United States.
Included on Team USA's roster are young defenders Cayla Barnes and Sidney Morin. Barnes is the team's youngest (19) and smallest (five-foot-one) player.
"I trust them and I believe in them and they're here," Stauber said.
If Canada and the United States indeed battle for the gold medal, that likely leaves Sweden, Finland and the Athletes from Russia to fight for the bronze medal. In the IIHF rankings Finland is third, Russia fourth and Sweden fifth.
Finland is led by goalie Noora Raty, regarded by many as the best goalie in women's hockey. Raty is a two-time NCAA champion with the Minnesota Golden Gophers and is playing in her fourth Olympics. Veteran Riika Valila, who played in the 1998 and 2002 Games, is back on the team and will play at age 44. Finland also boasts one of the most physical players in Rosa Lindstedt who is six-foot-one and 174 pounds. In 81 games in the Finnish Women's League Lindstedt has 483 penalty minutes.
Sweden also has strong goaltending in Sara Graham who will play in her third Olympics.