The matchup most expected when the women's hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Olympics started is the one that will take place Thursday when the United States and Canada play for the gold medal (Noon ET, NBC, CBC).
It's a white-hot rivalry that has seen the kind of physical play and anger that wouldn't be out of place in a Stanley Cup Playoff game. The teams have met in the finals of all 16 IIHF Women's World Championships. Canada won the first nine, but the United States has taken five of the past seven tournaments. They've also played for the gold medal three times in the four Olympics that have featured women's hockey; the U.S. won the first tournament in 1998 but Canada has won the past three.
"I think intense is probably a better word than hate because we all do respect one another at the end of the day," U.S. forward Hilary Knight said. "They're at the top of their game and we're at the top of ours. It's a great battle of the border there. It's definitely a hot ticket."
The two superpowers in the women's game will play in a second straight Olympic final, with the U.S. looking to avenge their loss to Canada in the final game at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
"There are 11 of us returning from Vancouver that in our minds came up short, so that's something that has driven all of us over the last four years," American forward Monique Lamoureux told the Chicago Tribune. "That feeling of coming up short doesn't fade over time. It's something that really sticks with us."
The Americans also will be looking to make up for a 3-2 loss to Canada during the preliminary round. The U.S. led 1-0 on Knight's goal with 2:26 left in the second period. But Canada responded with two goals in the first 3:54 of the third en route to the victory.
The U.S. took any residual anger out on Sweden in the semifinals, outshooting them 29-1 in the first period and 70-9 for the game in a 6-1 victory.
"After that game we weren't happy," Lamoureux told reporters in Sochi on Wednesday. "Not necessarily because we just lost but because we knew we didn't play our best hockey by far. We weren't great in the defensive zone, we didn't pressure pucks well and we didn't get pucks to the net. It is a matter of focusing on ourselves, playing to our strengths, and I think we will be OK."
The Americans will rely on an offense that has produced a tournament-high 20 goals in four games. The U.S. has three of the top six scorers in Sochi, with Amanda Kessel (three goals, three assists), Kendall Coyne (two goals, four assists) and Brianna Decker (two goals, four assists) all tied for second with six points. Michelle Karvinen of Finland leads the tournament with seven points.
Canada, which allowed two goals in going 3-0 in the preliminary round, put in a solid effort in a 3-1 defeat of Switzerland in the other semifinal. The win gives Canada a chance to become only the third team to win four Olympic gold medals in a row in hockey, and the first in women's hockey; Canada's men did it from 1920 to 1932 and the Soviet Union men did it 1964 to 1976.
Many of those players have what Canada coach Kevin Dineen called "a pretty special jewelry collection." And Dineen said he'll be relying on those veterans, among them Caroline Ouellette, Jayna Hefford, Hayley Wickenheiser and Gillian Apps on Thursday.
"Great players who have been in an Olympics or two," Dineen told the Canadian Press. "They've sat in this seat before."
"It certainly helps to have that Olympic experience," Ouellette told the Canadian Press. "You've been in those big games. You know how you're going to feel. You know it's going to be normal to be nervous at first and you are able to channel that energy, that nervousness into positive energy and make sure everyone around is calm and play up to their potential, play with confidence. It's our role as veterans to make sure everyone is calm, everyone is ready to go."
Despite the loss in the preliminary round, the Americans got the better of the Canadians during a pre-Olympic tour in December, winning four straight games. However, it's been 16 years since the Americans have beaten the Canadians when it counts at the Olympics.
"It's an awesome battle," U.S. defenseman Gigi Marvin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "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."