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Collision course for Olympic gold: Canada-USA women's rivalry ramped up by tournament format

The format of the group stage ensures a preliminary round game between Canada and USA before the two teams embark on a collision course for gold.

When it comes to Canada-USA dominance in women’s hockey, not even the International Ice Hockey Federation is pretending anymore. For these Olympics and in 2014 in Sochi, both countries were placed in the same competition group. But there’s an interesting wrinkle in that the top two teams from Group A, in this case Canada and USA, advance directly to the semifinals.

The winner of Group B, in this case Switzerland, would normally receive a bye as well, but must play a quarterfinal against the fourth-place team in Group A, in this case the Olympic Athletes of Russia, to determine who meets Canada in one semifinal. USA meanwhile, goes directly to the semifinal despite finishing second in its group and will play the winner of the game between the second-place team in Group B (Sweden) and the third-place team in Group A (Finland).

The thought here is that this format both guarantees a compelling round-robin game between Canada and USA, but also that barring an upset of biblical proportions, the two hockey superpowers won’t meet in a semifinal game. It’s an interesting little gerrymandering of the format, but it works.

This, of course, will not silence critics who lament that the same two countries are perpetually playing for gold and silver. It’s impossible to argue anything to the contrary, but we will offer this. First, the gap is closing, probably not as quickly as a lot of people would like, but it is closing. The days of 18-0 blowouts are gone, in part because Canada and USA did not play Korea or Japan in these Games, but also because teams are getting better. In 2010 in Vancouver, Canada beat Switzerland 10-1. Four years later in Sochi, that was reduced to 3-1 in the semifinal. Finland remains competitive against Canada and USA, but isn’t quite there…yet.

And really, beyond the predictability of the 1-2 tandem, are the men’s and World Junior tournaments really any more competitive? Over the course of the past 10 World Women’s Championships, USA has won eight gold medals and Canada two. Four other countries have split the bronze medals – Finland (five), Switzerland (one), Russia (two) and Sweden (two). That’s a total of six different medalists. Care to guess how many different countries have won medals at the WJC? Well, that would be six – Canada, Sweden, Russia, USA, Finland and Slovakia. And in the men’s Worlds, there have only been seven – Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia and USA. Of those countries, USA and Slovakia have medalled only once.

The only difference in the women’s game is that the medal podium is top-heavy with Canada and USA, both in the World Championship and Olympics. And that’s why everyone is assuming that the two countries are on a collision course to meet in the gold medal game in 2018. And if Canada’s 2-1 win over USA in the round-robin portion of the tournament is any indication, that’s exactly what the final game will be if the two meet again. The game between the two superpowers Wednesday night was as physical and nasty as it gets at any level of hockey. It really was another chapter in what is shaping up as one of the most compelling and hotly contested rivalries in all sports.

The question is: If these two teams were this intense and physical in a game where essentially only the choice of sweater color in the gold medal game was on the line, how much are they going to bring it (if and) when they meet for the actual medal one week from today?

You know the Americans will be hungry for a number of reasons, mostly because in the past two games in the Olympics they’ve badly outplayed the Canadians only to find themselves on the losing end. In the gold medal game in Sochi, USA held a 2-0 lead and had smothered Canada for most of the game. In fact, they were an empty-net hit goalpost away from ending it in regulation time before Canada staged a furious comeback to win it in overtime. And on Wednesday night, they outshot and outplayed Canada for most of the game, but Canada was the more opportunistic team.

And when it comes to the Olympics, that’s really the difference between these two teams. Canada has had Marie-Philip Poulin, who has scored the game-winner in the past two gold medal games. USA desperately needs its own version of Marie-Philip Poulin, whether that comes in the form of one of the Lamoureux twins or Hilary Knight or Amanda Kessel or someone else. Despite outshooting Canada by an almost 2-1 margin (45-23), USA could not find that game-breaker on Wednesday night.

All of which adds another layer of intrigue to this rivalry. It should be another classic in the gold medal game Feb. 25. If it happens, of course. Yeah, that’s it. If it happens.

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