It’s payback time for the United States.
The U.S. women’s hockey team will face archrival Canada in Thursday’s gold medal game at the 2014 Winter Olympics. It’s a rematch of the final four years ago in Vancouver, when Team USA lost 2-0.
The U.S. enjoyed a four-game winning streak over the Canadians entering Sochi, but the defending Olympic champions beat the Americans 3-2 in the preliminary round last week. The victory extended the Canadians’ Olympic win streak to 19 games, which includes three consecutive gold medal victories.
The last major matchup between these rivals came at the 2013 World Championships, where the Americans defeated Canada 3-2 in the final. This big-game experience will help Team USA get off to a strong start in Thursday’s showdown.
Check out our preview below.
Canada — Hayley Wickenheiser
The veteran forward is competing in her fifth Olympics and aiming to win a fourth gold. Wickenheiser scored, picked up an assist and tallied a team-high six shots in Canada’s group-stage victory over Team USA. The 35-year-old’s previous gold medal experience, leadership, play-making ability and defensive skills make her the most important player on the Canadian roster.
United States — Amanda Kessel
Kessel is tied for the team lead in scoring with six points (three goals, three assists), but she struggled in the loss to Canada with no points and just two shots on goal. Canada did a tremendous job of taking away Kessel’s time and space with the puck in the attacking zone, preventing her from creating scoring chances.
If the U.S. is to score enough goals to beat Canada, Kessel must use her speed and play-making ability to generate offense. She should enter the final full of confidence after scoring once, picking up an assist and earning a plus-3 rating in Team USA’s 6-1 victory over Sweden in the semifinals.
Key To Victory
Goaltending has been a major factor in the Canadians’ success in Sochi, and if that continues, they will claim a fourth consecutive Olympic title. Charline Labonte (.972 save percentage, 0.50 GAA) and Shannon Szabados (.951 save percentage, 1.00 GAA) are ranked first and second in save percentage and GAA, respectively. They have made all the clutch saves when needed and been a valuable component of the penalty kill.
Labonte stopped 25 of 27 shots in the group-stage win over Team USA, and she’ll likely start Thursday.
The U.S. needs to use its speed and quickness to play a fast-paced, wide-open game to create scoring chances. The Canadians are a bigger, stronger team that would prefer to play a slower, defensive game. If the American women control possession by winning faceoffs and start breakouts with quick, crisp passes, they should be able to generate enough offense to win.
Canada has the blue-line talent and quality goaltending needed to shut down the high-powered American offense and dictate the tempo. The Canadians have won the last two Olympic meetings between these rivals by a combined score of 5-2 and rarely make mistakes on this kind of stage.
The key for Team USA is to pressure Canada early by scoring first and taking a lead into the third period. It will be incredibly difficult for the Americans to win if they’re forced to play from behind late in the game.
Pick: Canada wins the gold medal 4-2 with an empty-net goal
Photo via Twitter/USOlympic