Poulin, Canada already focused on Olympic rematch with USA

Team Canada celebrates the game winning goal against Team USA during overtime National Women's Team series hockey action in Edmonton, Alta., on Sunday December 17, 2017. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — Marie-Philip Poulin’s team had just vanquished the Americans, realistically the only road block between Canada and every gold medal available in women’s hockey.

Canada had been outplayed for large tracts of the game, but with the urging of one of the largest crowds in the history of the sport — 17,468 at Rogers Place in Edmonton — Canada crashed the American net and rammed home the game-winner with 27 ticks left on the overtime clock.

It was sheer ecstasy, a 2-1 win that closed a six-game series between the two nations that saw only one game go to Team USA. Canada went 5-1 — next stop, the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea this February.

When the two teams doff their helmet-cage combos in Korea with Olympic gold on the line this February, the same anthems playing as have played at nearly every gold medal game in every major event in women’s hockey history, what will this dominant series victory be worth?

“Nothing, to be honest,” deadpanned Poulin.

Wow… Nothing?

“It’s in the past,” Poulin said, not 20 minutes after Jennifer Wakefield had bludgeoned home the winner from about three feet out. “Knowing that we can beat them, having those wins under our belts feels good. But we’ve got lots of work ahead.”

Welcome to the world of women’s hockey. Here, there are two teams that truly matter, a Finnish team that could theoretically trip you up if you take them lightly, and a Russian club that needed that country’s traditional scientific boosters to finish sixth in Sochi.

While the Finns, Swedes and Chinese have worked to keep up to the two North American powers, it’s fair to wonder if the improvement made by Canadian and American women has not actually widened the gap.

For example, not many years ago Team Canada opened up an annual series against the teams of the Alberta’s Midget AAA league. They used to struggle against the 16- and 17-year-old boys, but slowly pulled their game up to a point where Canada would roll through the province and end up with a .500 record against Midget AAA teams from Grande Prairie to Lethbridge, and everywhere in between.

This year the Canadian women are 9-5-1 in that series, with seven games left before they head to Korea. It is this team’s not so secret advantage, and a reason why they can look at Team USA as just another tough opponent, rather than the only tough opponents they’ll face all season long.

“Every time we step on the ice with (Team USA), we push each other to get better. We push the envelope on women’s hockey, and when one team raises the bar the other tries to one up that,” said defenceman Meaghan Mikkelson. “But in saying that, going into the last Olympics we’d lost four straight to them. Somehow we found a way to win that game. So, as good as it feels to win these games … they may have prepared us, but at the end of the day it’s going to come down to our performance at the Olympics.”

We asked these ladies about an increased spotlight, with the National Hockey Leaguers staying home. They all but laughed — as if the pressure can get any higher than it was in Salt Lake City, Vancouver or Sochi.

“We’ll just go about our business, fly under the radar,” joked Shannon Szabados, who at age 31 does not look ready to relinquish her No. 1 gig here, with a fantastic 34-save display Sunday. “If it brings a little more attention, not for us but for the younger generation, I hope that’s the case.”

They’ll be the only best-on-best show in Peyongchang, when it comes to our national game. We’ll cheer on our men, to be sure. But if they don’t win we’ll shrug it off with a “meh, we didn’t have our best guys there anyhow.”

The women? There’ll be no shrugs for them.

It’s a lock that they’ll reunite with the Americans in that gold medal game. By then, this heady night in Edmonton will be long in the rearview mirror.

“It’s nice to have the confidence, but…,” said Szabados. “When it comes to February, it’s a whole new ball game.”

One we can’t wait to watch.