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Canada women still control rivalry with U.S.

by Shawn P. Roarke

SOCHI -- Canada entered the third period of its final preliminary round game of the women's hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Olympics facing a ton of questions about itself.

After a dominating showing in the period it was the Canadians' opponent, the United States, doing the soul searching. Canada scored three goals in the final 20 minutes for a come-from-behind 3-2 victory Wednesday at Shayba Arena in the latest edition of this white-hot rivalry.

Before Wednesday Canada had lost four consecutive pre-Olympic games to the Americans, who seemed to be taking charge of a rivalry which has been dominated by Canada. Hayley Wickenheiser had been unceremoniously replaced as captain of the team in the months leading up to this competition. The original coach, Dan Church, resigned in the days leading up to Sochi, replaced at the last minute by Kevin Dineen, the former Florida Panthers coach taking his first stab at the women's game.

Then the Canadian team struggled to beat Finland in its previous game, playing to a scoreless tie into the third period. When Hilary Knight scored on a U.S. power play in the second period Wednesday, Canada trailed in the Olympics for the first time in more than 1,000 minutes of game play. Its 18-game Olympic win streak was hanging by a thread as the second intermission began.

Suddenly the gold-standard program in women's hockey looked vulnerable, no longer a sure bet to win gold as it had done in each of the past four Olympic tournaments. Not surprisingly the Americans, fueled by a wave of young, brash, skilled players, looked primed to turn the rivalry on its axis.

But the proud Wickenheiser, still an alternate captain for the Canadians, dipped into her legendary bag of tricks to say not so fast.

"It was very calm," Wickenheiser said of the scene in the Canada locker room during the second intermission. "We said come like waves of red and come at them."

Wickenheiser then did what a leader must; she led by example.

First she set up Meghan Agosta for the tying goal early in the third period on the power play. Then 93 seconds later Wickenheiser put the Canadians ahead with the help of a little bit of divine providence. Her apparently harmless wrist shot hit off American goalie Jessie Vetter and fell to the ice. It appeared teammate Alex Carpenter was trying to push the puck under Vetter's pads but it went into the net. The only problem was it crossed the line after the Finnish referee, Anna Eskola, blew the whistle.

However, the goal stood after video review and Canada was in the lead; the United States was on its heels, reeling from a deadly counterpunch from a crafty veteran whose team had been on the ropes.

Now the Americans were reeling; they never recovered.

Agosta scored again, this time on a breakaway, and it took the Americans more than 15 minutes to register their first shot on goal of the period. A late goal by defenseman Anne Schleper made things interesting, but that was all.

"We knew that we were down by one but we had them where we wanted them," Agosta said. "We just needed to pop one early and continue battling. That's what we did. Once we got one we got a few and it ended up that we were on top."

The questions dogging Canada heading into the tournament were answered, at least for a day. They beat their fiercest rival and did so in a demoralizing way.

The message has been sent as these two rivals head to the semifinals in opposite brackets, believing they will meet again for the gold medal in a week's time.

"It's a big win," Wickenheiser said, "but ultimately it is a battle and the war is still to be played. We know that. But every game we play nobody wants to lose."

It is now time for the Americans to begin framing their response.

"For us, it is important to have a good night," said Julie Chu, one of the most experienced players on the American team and a veteran of countless U.S.-Canada skirmishes. "We have to decompress from this, learn a lot and have some good practices.

"Our next focus is our semifinal game. … If we do face them [Canada] later on it is going to be a battle. It always is and that is something that we embrace."

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