Canada, USA set to renew one of the greatest rivalries in sports

Canadian women's hockey team shuts out OAR 5-0 to set up the much anticipated gold-medal game vs. rival U.S.A.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — There was one minute and 27 seconds left in this semifinal and Canada was up 5-0 when Shannon Szabados, the woman who has backstopped her country to two Olympic gold medals, was run over by an Olympic Athletes of Russia forward named Yevgenia Dyupina.

Szabados, who’d gone behind her net to pass a puck up to a teammate, picked herself up pretty quickly and she did what you do when someone takes you out, out of nowhere: She went straight for Dyupina. Canadian defenceman Brigette Lacquette already had that idea, and was a few strides ahead of her goalie, seemingly about to lay down a punishment.

But no, it’s not what you think: Szabados wasn’t going after the Russian. This game was all but over, and there’s a pretty big one ahead. The goaltender’s thoughts were all about preservation.

“I was trying to keep Brigette — well, one, I was trying to skate to the bench, because they were getting a penalty,” said Szabados, just after Canada punched its ticket to the gold medal game. (She’s fine, by the way, after that hit). “I was just trying to tell Bridge, ‘It’s OK. Near the end of the game there, we got a big one coming up, so need you for that one.’”

Does Canada ever have a big one coming up. Boy, oh boy. After a pair of semifinals on Monday, including Canada’s dominant win over OAR, the stage is set for one of the richest rivalries in sport.

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The predictable happened: Canada vs. US for women's Olympic hockey gold
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For the fifth time in history, Canada and Team USA will meet in the gold medal final — the reigning Olympic champions against the reigning world champions, which you had to see coming. For Canada, it’s a shot at a fifth straight gold medal. For Team USA, it’s a chance to win a first since they won the first-ever Olympic gold awarded in the sport, 20 years ago.

Canada cruised into its sixth straight Olympic women’s hockey final (and there have only been six). The reigning and four-time Olympic champions, wearing their white jerseys, needed less than two minutes to strike in Monday’s semifinal at the Gangneung Hockey Centre.

Just 1:50 in, Blayre Turnbull dug the puck out of the OAR corner, then Natalie Spooner picked it up and threaded a nice pass to a wide-open Jennifer Wakefield, who one-timed it home from the slot to make it 1-0, Canada.

How did that winner feel, Wakefield? “I mean, I think it was in the first three minutes,” she said, grinning. The first two, actually. “It was good for us to get on the board first to kind of put them on their heels.” She’d strike again in the third.

But after that quick one, her first, when this game had barely started, you got the feeling this was going to be a demolition. It took some time for Canada to really get going, though. “I think we didn’t start the way we wanted,” said Canadian forward Melodie Daoust. In fact, while Canada out-chanced Russia in the first, it should’ve been 1-1 just after the halfway mark of that opening period.

OAR forward Yelena Dergachyova will probably be thinking about this missed opportunity for some time. She had a juicy rebound land right on her stick, with a mostly open net, but her rushed backhand hit Szabados at the far side. Dergachyova looked up at the ceiling after that one.

“It was a pass across and I made the first save, but I didn’t see it come off,” Szabos said, of the ensuing rebound. “Was a little late getting there and got a little lucky to get a piece of it.”

That luck preserved a Canadian streak: It would’ve been the first time Canada had given up a first-period goal in 20 straight Olympic games. (The last time was against Finland, back in 2002).

Canada, too, had its chances early on that they didn’t convert on. In the first they hit a post, went 0-for-2 on the power play, and OAR goalie Valeria Tarakanova made a couple good saves.

In the second, captain Poulin scored the prettiest goal of this game, extending Canada’s lead to two in the early goings with a beauty top-shelf backhand, after Daoust found her in front. Canada had a stronger period overall, and OAR managed just four shots.

Still, it wasn’t quite the dominant Canadian performance we all expected, though it was clear they were the better team. The one area in which Canada was outdone, however, was in the stands. OAR had a healthy cheering contingent led by a man who acted like a conductor, and fans had pom-poms, broke out in slightly choreographed dances, and wore red t-shirts that spelled out “RUSSIAHOCKEY” and “#RUSSIAISINMYHEART,” letter by letter. The “RUSS-I-A” chants and songs dominated the evening. Clearly they haven’t embraced the whole Olympic Athletes of Russia name.

The singing got a little less loud in the third period, however. That’s when the domination really set in, when Canada scored two goals just 31 seconds apart, Wakefield striking with her second on a wrist-shot from a bad angle, nearly parallel to the goal line, and Emily Clark from the doorstep soon after. Then, on a power play, Rebecca Johnston scooped up a rebound and wristed it top-shelf to make it 5-0.

When it was all said and done, Canada had 47 shots compared to just 17 for OAR, who will meet Finland in the bronze medal game. As alternate captain Brianne Jenner pointed out, “we got better as each period went on.”

“We stayed pretty calm and just focused on some details,” the veteran forward added. “When we out-change teams and we focus on our line changes we can kind of hem them in their end pretty good. That was sort of our focus. I thought in the third we did an excellent job, put them on their heels, so that’s what we’re looking to do in the next game.”

Ah, the next game. It has the makings of being the game of these Games. It sure was four years ago.

This American team is going to be highly motivated, indeed. Four years ago on this stage, they watched a two-goal lead evaporate with a couple minutes to go in the third period, and then Poulin scored (again) in overtime to complete one of the most unreal comebacks in history.

But these Americans are confident, despite that fact they already lost to Canada in the round-robin, 2-1, thanks to outstanding goaltending from Genevieve Lacasse. Team USA badly outshot the Canadians, they just couldn’t convert on their chances.

“We had a lot of point-blank scoring opportunities and it’s just, we got to finish,” veteran forward Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson said, following Team USA’s 5-0 win over Finland.

The same goes for here at the Olympics: It’s been 20 years since Team USA last finished on this stage.

But hey, Canada heads into this one feeling pretty good. “I think it’s like anything: it doesn’t matter what your record is going in, but you can take those experiences and build off what you’re doing well,” Jenner said. “And we certainly feel after that round-robin that we had and that semifinal, we feel confident and we’re excited about the kind of game that we’re playing.”

The gold medal final is set for Thursday, and if history has shown us anything, it’s going to be a real beauty.

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