‘A rivalry you can’t put into words’: Canada, USA ready to battle for gold at worlds

Canada forward Sarah Nurse (20) gets stopped by USA goaltender Aerin Frankel (31) during first period IIHF Women's World Hockey Championship hockey action in Brampton, Ont., on Monday, April 10, 2023. (Nathan Denette/CP)

BRAMPTON — And then there were two.

For the 21st time in the tournament’s history, Canada and the United States have battled their way through the best at the IIHF Women’s World Championship to take their place on either side of hockey’s greatest rivalry with a gold medal on the line.

Just a few hours after Team USA secured their golden ticket with a 9-1 win over Czechia Saturday afternoon, Canada held up their end of the bargain with a 5-1 victory over Switzerland led by Sarah Fillier’s home-ice hat trick.

Sure, a Canada-USA gold-medal showdown was the expected outcome again this year, but it was never a certainty. The home team has been tested plenty in the past 10 days — not just by their American foes in what was a thrilling preliminary finale decided by a shootout, but by a tough Swedish team in the quarter-final that almost knocked the favourites out of the tournament in overtime.

Even Saturday against Switzerland, despite no lack of intensity off the hop, Canada struggled to find the back of the net. After 30 minutes of scoreless hockey, Sarah Fillier finally did. She added another six minutes later, the only skater to solve Swiss netminder Andrea Braendli until Jamie Lee Rattray tapped in a gift-wrapped rebound early in the third to break open Canada’s lead en route to the win.

For Marie-Philip Poulin, there’s a lesson in every bit of adversity and it’s all part of the path to Sunday’s final.

“Even today, the first period, we couldn’t score. Their goalie was on fire,” Canada’s captain said post-game. “For us, we just stuck to our game. Nobody went individual. We still stayed as a team, we played a unit of five, and it worked. And I think putting the pressure on them right away, it allowed us to score that first goal with Sarah and we kept going. That’s huge for us. We did learn a lot … a lot of adversity, but it’s how we respond to it, and that’s what we did.”

Those tests throughout the tournament have also set the stage for several players to step up and play hero. Against Team USA last Monday, it was Rattray in a shootout. Thursday, it was Sarah Nurse in overtime. Saturday it was Fillier’s turn.

“It just shows how deep is our team. And everybody is happy for each other’s success and that’s something that we show on the ice, we show off the ice, and you can tell,” said Poulin. “Every night, somebody’s going to step up and we’re all going to be behind them. That’s something that’s very special about this team. When people are happy for each other’s success, that’s how you get to the top.”

Waiting for them there at the top, eying their opportunity to knock them off hockey’s throne, is a familiar foe in Team USA. American head coach John Wroblewski, in his second worlds behind the U.S. bench, knows firsthand the depth Canada brings to the ice.

“Their goaltender’s undefeated. Poulin scores every time. If it’s not her, it’s Nurse. If it’s not her, it’s somebody else. Fillier scores every game against us. So, there’s not one thing to shut down against Canada. There’s a multitude of experience and confidence,” he said. “To dethrone someone that’s that good at what they do is going to take an outstanding performance from every single player and very few mistakes as well from our coaching staff.”

Even at the top of their hockey world, you’ll still find the David-and-Goliath storyline at play.

“I mean, I always feel like we’re the underdogs,” said Team USA captain Hilary Knight. “We definitely have a chip on our shoulder.”

Knight scored a pair of goals against Czechia to help keep the Americans’ perfect streak of never missing a gold-medal final at the worlds intact.

The last time Team USA won gold was the only time their final opponent wasn’t Canada. They defeated Finland in 2019 after Canada was upset in the semis and went on to claim bronze. A year before that, Team USA was at the height of its dominance — their golden victory at the 2018 Olympic Games a mighty exclamation point that followed four straight women’s worlds gold over Canada.

Then came the 2021 world championship, which saw Poulin lead Canada back to the top for her first tournament title as captain. Less than a year later, Canada earned back its Olympic title before defending their worlds gold last summer. Now they’re one win away from completing the three-peat for the first time since the early 2000s.

The golden victories are hard to win, and the rivalry itself hard to describe.

“It’s a hard-fought game … we as players put everything on the line,” said Knight. “It’s just one of those rivalries that you just really can’t put into words. It’s really special.”

“Special” might just be the best word for it.

“We all do the same, we train for the same reason, you want to get that gold medal,” Poulin said of the decades-long rivalry that gets better with age. “At the end of the day, it’s ‘Who’s going to show up tomorrow for 60 minutes?’ It’s going to be exciting … from the start to the finish, it’s gonna be a battle out there.”

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