Analysis

Canada, U.S. took very different paths to Olympic women's hockey gold-medal final

After four long years, Canada's women's hockey team will seek to reclaim the Olympic title from the arch-rival Americans. The Canadians enter the gold-medal game as the favourite, but as Kirsten Whelan writes, don't be surprised if the teams need more than 60 minutes to settle things.

Canadians may be favourites, but games vs. arch-rivals typically go down to the wire

Canada's Jocelyne Larocque and the United States' Hilary Knight vie for the puck during their preliminary group match on Feb. 8 at the Beijing Olympics. (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

After four long years, Canada's women's hockey team will seek to reclaim the Olympic title from the arch-rival Americans.

It enters the gold-medal game as the favourite, but matches between these countries tend to go down to the wire. Four of the pair's nine meetings this season, including the world championship final, have required overtime.

Canada has won four gold medals (2002, 2006, 2010, 2014) and two silvers (1998, 2018) in the tournament's six previous iterations, with five of the championship games having pitted them against the U.S.

Fans in Canada can watch the Olympic final on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app, and CBC Gem beginning on Wednesday at 11:10 p.m. ET.

The Canadian juggernaut

Canada has gone undefeated through the tournament, outscoring opponents by a cumulative margin of 54-8. The Canadians shut out Sweden 11-0 in the quarter-final, then dispatched Switzerland 10-3 to secure their chance at gold.

Neither knockout game was particularly threatening. They'll enter the final confident in their offensive depth, with every skater having registered at least one point throughout the tournament. They've also developed a knack for scoring early, having gotten at least one first-period goal in each of their games.

WATCH | Canada beat Swiss to advance to Olympic gold-medal final:

Canada's women's hockey team beats Switzerland, advances to gold-medal game

6 months ago
Duration 4:05
The Canadian women's hockey team defeats Switzerland 10-3 in the semifinals at Beijing 2022 and will play for the gold medal.

The biggest question for Canada will be whether it's prepared to defend under pressure. The Canadians brought a group of dynamic, young defenders who have been effective in driving the play. Given Canada's dominance, though, they haven't been tested much in their own zone.

Thanks in large part to Ann-Renée Desbiens' performance in net, the Canadians withstood a relentless U.S. forecheck in the first period of their preliminary-round meeting. Canada struggled to effectively break out in the opening frame, and they haven't had to deal with similar opposition since.

The USA's Kendall Coyne Schofield, left, and Hannah Brandt, right, try to score past Canada's goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens during their preliminary round match on Feb. 8. Desbiens made 51 saves in that game, a 4-2 win for Canada. (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

A rockier road for the Americans

Team USA's only defeat was its 4-2 loss to Canada, but the Americans have had a more turbulent road to this point. Their knockout round matches each ended as 4-1 wins, but Team USA's fate seemed to hang in the balance until late in both games.

The Americans struggled to score and briefly trailed the Czech Republic ― which was seeded seventh among the eight advancing teams ― in the quarter-final; they didn't gain the lead until the third period. Their semifinal against Finland was similarly tense, with no goals until the second period and two of the Americans' four tallies coming in the game's dying minutes.

The U.S. will enter the gold-medal game battle-tested, though its scoring difficulties may be a concern. Despite an aggressive attack, they haven't consistently converted pressure into leads, particularly in the first period. It has scored just one goal all tournament in the opening 10 minutes, and went scoreless through the initial 20 in both knockout games.

WATCH | Brianna Decker injured, ruled out for entire Olympic tourney:

American Brianna Decker stretchered off in Olympic hockey opener

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Decker screamed out in pain after falling awkwardly during the first period of the United States game against Finland.

Depth could also be a weakness for the Americans. Top centre Brianna Decker was injured in their first game, and Britta Curl, who was intended to replace her,  was unable to travel due to a positive COVID-19 test. On top of that, coach Joel Johnson has opted to rely on a shortened bench. Defenders Caroline Harvey and Jincy Dunne have been kept off the ice entirely ever since the game against Canada, and three forwards played fewer than eight minutes against Finland.

Special teams could be the difference

Special teams will likely be important in the final. Canada has produced the tournament's best power play, capitalizing on 45.45 per cent, and has the best penalty kill of any team to advance out of the group stage, with an 87.1 per cent success rate.

The Canadians have certainly put that kill to the test, as they also lead the tournament in penalties taken.

The American power play is scoring at a 23.08 per cent clip, while their kill is ranked eighth of ten at 76.92 per cent. The U.S. has, however, given opponents far fewer opportunities to take advantage, with just 35 penalty minutes to Canada's 64.

Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin, right, scores on a penalty shot goal in Canada's 4-2 win over the U.S. earlier in the Games. (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

The Canadians have generated scoring from throughout the lineup ― they boast eight of the tournament's top 10 points leaders ― so the offence could truly come from anywhere. But if there's one player to look out for, the obvious choice is captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who has developed a reputation for coming up clutch.

Hilary Knight has played that role so far for the Americans, having scored key goals in both knockout games. 

WATCH | Jenner ties tourney record:

Brianne Jenner ties Olympic record for most goals in a single tournament

6 months ago
Duration 1:02
Canadian forward Brianne Jenner ties the Olympic record for the most goals in a single women's tournament with nine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kirsten Whelan has covered women's hockey since 2015, from the youth level through to professional and international competition. She is based in Montreal.

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