By Gary DAmato Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
SOCHI, Russia — They know each other like the right hand knows the left, mirror-image adversaries with only the jerseys on their backs to tell them apart.
There are no secrets between them. No tricks up their sleeves. No stones left unturned.
If Team USA vs. Team Canada in women’s hockey isn’t the best rivalry in sports, it’s at least in the conversation. There have been 15 world championships for women, and 15 times these two teams have met in the final. There have been four gold medal games at the Olympics, and three times it was USA vs. Canada.
On Thursday night, at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, they’ll do it again.
Both teams handled their semifinal opponents Monday, the Americans peppering Sweden’s goalies for 60 minutes in a 6-1 victory, the Canadians following with a 3-1 victory over Switzerland.
“It’s not the U.S. and Canada’s fault that they are good,” Swedish coach Leif Boork said with a shrug. “I think they should go on being good so we have something to work on.”
What the Americans and Canadians have to work on is each other. The U.S. won the first gold-medal showdown in Nagano in 1998, when women’s hockey made its Olympic debut. Canada has won gold in every Winter Games since, twice with victories over the U.S. (2002, 2010).
Team USA beat Canada four straight times in December during a pre-Olympics tour, but Canada is coming off a 3-2 victory in the preliminary round last Wednesday, a game that could have psychological repercussions. Nobody has to remind the Americans that they haven’t beaten their archrivals on Olympic ice in 16 years.
“We had a little bit of adversity with a loss against Canada, but we turned the corner and started fresh,” said U.S. captain Meghan Duggan, a former University of Wisconsin standout. “We went through a pretty intense video session and looked at all of our mistakes so that we don’t make them again.
“We came out tonight a different team. We got back to our game.”
Coach Katey Stone thought the Americans played on their heels in their loss to the Canadians. Against Sweden, she wanted her team back on its toes, pushing the puck, staying in attack mode.
“I like how our team responded,” she said.
Indeed, Team USA’s victory felt like a 60-minute power play. Probably 90 percent of the game was played within 40 feet of Sweden’s goal and the Americans outshot the Swedes, 70-9. Boork pulled goalie Valentina Wallner for Kim Martin Hasson in the second period.
Asked why, he said, “We took Val out because she had a busy day at work.”
Alex Carpenter, Kacey Bellamy, Monique Lamoureux, Megan Bozek, Amanda Kessel and Brianna Decker of Dousman all scored goals. Decker and Bozek each had two assists.
Sweden scored a consolation goal with 7 minutes left when Anna Borgqvist redirected Emma Eliasson’s shot from the blue line past goalie Jessie Vetter.
“You gave us all kinds of fits at different moments of the game,” Stone said to Boork in the news conference, but he was having none of it.
“We were under hard pressure from the beginning,” he said. “There’s not too much to say. It’s too big a challenge for us at the moment.”
Other than Sweden’s 3-2 upset victory over Team USA in the semifinals in 2006, the women’s Olympic tournament has been a two-team deal. If the rest of the world can’t catch up soon, the game could be in danger of being removed from the Winter Olympics program.
“The last thing we ever want is for it to leave the Olympics,” said U.S. center Julie Chu.
But the players’ only responsibility is to play hard and let the pucks fall where they may. In the meantime, the U.S.-Canada rivalry burns brightly. It might not be as big as Red Sox-Yankees, Packers-Bears or Alabama-Auburn, but not for lack of intensity on the part of the players.
“It’s an awesome battle,” said U.S. defenseman Gigi Marvin. “They’re bringing their best and you’re bringing your best. Every single athlete loves that. Every single athlete loves when it’s all on the line and you’ve got to give everything and more.
“That’s what’s so exciting about playing against them. It’s awesome to have that in our face. We’re looking forward to it. We feel prepared and we’re ready.”
Before the Americans left for Sochi, they met with members of the 1998 team, the only U.S. team to win Olympic gold.
“They told us there was something special about our team and that’s the way they felt in ‘98,” said center Kelli Stack. “We want to bring a gold medal back to the States, because it’s been so long.”
Standing in their way is Canada. The Americans will look across the ice and see women they have battled for years, in every corner of the hockey-playing globe. They will see players they respect but do not particularly like. Familiarity, after all, breeds contempt.
“I’ve played against them for a long time,” Duggan said. “They’re obviously strong opponents. But to me they’re just players on another team. They’re just girls in red jerseys.”
The feeling is mutual.