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U.S., Canada take women's hockey rivalry to gold-medal stage

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The U.S. women's hockey team knows exactly what to expect tonight when it plays Canada tonight for an Olympic medal.

Bedlam.

They saw it firsthand Sunday night when they attended the U.S.-Canada men's game. And they saw it in September when they played Canada for the championship of the Olympic test tournament.

The famously polite Canadians suddenly turn mean. Their faces turn as red as the maple leaf on the flags they wave. And the Americans, as defenseman Karen Thatcher said, suddenly become "everyone's worst enemy."

Team USA knows Thursday's 3:30 p.m. PST game will be the same, but they hope it has something else in common with those games: A U.S. victory.

But outside of the United States, there aren't many that expect the Americans to win their first gold since 1998.

"USA is a great team, but overall Canada is stronger and if I had to put money on it, I'd go with Canada," said Pekka Hamalainen, the coach of a Finland team that was shutout by both teams.

Canadian defender Carla Macleod says this wouldn't be a good game for Hamalainen or anybody else to gamble on. "On any given day it can go either way," she said.

The American's know they'll be the underdogs, but they're unfazed by that role, one they rarely have to play.

"You can have on paper the best team in the tournament," U.S. defenseman Kerry Weiland said, "but if the talent doesn't show up and put in the hard work ..."

The Americans will be ready, Weiland said.

"It will be a dream come true," Weiland said of the game. "We feel prepared. We've put in a lot of hard work to be here."

The U.S. beat Canada in the last two World Championships, but Canada won all six exhibition games against the Americans before the Olympics.

The teams are the most dominant in the sport, meeting in the gold medal game for the third time since 1998 when women's hockey was first added to the Games. The Americans won the first gold, but Canada has won the last two.

Both teams have dominated the Olympic tournament so far without even the hint of a close game. Team USA has outscored its opponents 40-2 in four games and Canada won its games by combined score of 46-2.

"Canada is like a machine that just keeps on going," said Erika Holst, a forward for Sweden. "I think the U.S. is a little more creative."

Sweden's coach Peter Elander, who lost to both teams at the Games, said, "The USA plays with a little more speed, (they) play quicker. Canada is stronger. It's hard to play against both, but it's fun to watch them play."

Meghan Agosto has been the Canadians' star so far scoring a tournament best nine goals. She also has five assists. Caroline Ouellette and Hayley Wickenheiser lead the tournament with nine assists each. Jayna Hefford and Cherie Lee Piper (five goals each) and Haley Irwin (four) are also in the top ten goal scorers of the tournament.

The Americans are led by Jenny Potter's six goals and Natalie Darwitz and Hilary Knight's seven assists each. Darwitz, Monique Lamoureux and Meghan Duggan are also among the top 10 scorers with four goals each.

U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter has allowed only one goal during the Games. Canada's top two goalies, Kim St. Pierre and Shannon Szabados, have combined to also allow only one goal.

"It's going to be an absolute battle," Irwin said.

For veterans of the U.S. team like Angela Ruggiero who has played on all four Olympic teams, they'd love to exact a little revenge for the 2002 Olympics. At the Salt Lake Games, Canada beat the Americans 3-1 for gold.

Watching the Canadians celebrate their first gold in the U.S. made the loss that much more bitter, Ruggiero said.

They'd love to repay the favor, but, Ruggiero said, "It would be sweet to celebrate anywhere. I would just love to win another gold medal."

OLYMPIC HOCKEY GOLD

The U.S. and Canada have won every gold medal since women's hockey was added to the Olympics in 1998

1998: USA 3, Canada 1

2002: Canada 3, USA 1

2006: Canada 4, Sweden 1

2010: Canada vs. USA

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