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Pens players looking forward to games between USA and Canada

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

After being on the road all week, the Penguins got back into town late Thursday night after playing the New York Islanders. They were glad to make it back in time for the exhibition games between the U.S. and Canadian women's national teams this weekend.

"It's great to have events like this right here in Pittsburgh," Sidney Crosby said before adding with a smile, "It's not that far from the border, so I'm sure we'll get a little Canadian influence."

The Penguins are hosting Team USA and Hockey Canada for a unique joint training camp that replaces the Four Nations Cup, which was originally scheduled to take place this month but was canceled.

So these won't be your typical exhibition games, as they not only replace an important, prestigious tournament - they will serve as a preview for the five-game Rivalry Series between the U.S. and Canada held from December 2019 through January 2020.

Crosby certainly knows a thing or two about the rivalry between the U.S. and Canada, which is one of the best in all of sports on the women's side. He's attended a few of their epic matchups, and is expecting that same intensity from them tonight.

"Obviously that rivalry is really big, they see each other a lot," Crosby said. "It's definitely grown over the years. Both teams have had their fair share of success over the years, and it's been a great rivalry."

What stands out to Crosby the most about their style of play is the speed and the skill.

"There's probably not as much physical play, but there's a lot more than you'd think," he said. "It's pretty physical in front of the nets and things like that. They battle hard."

While the Penguins players have all watched many of the U.S. and Canadian national team members play at the Olympics, they also remember watching some of them back in their college days. 

Crosby went to watch his sister Taylor during her freshman season at Northeastern University in 2014-15 while the Penguins were in Boston to play the Bruins. Kendall Coyne, now the captain of Team USA, was in her junior season at the time.

"She can really skate, and it was great to see her flying around out there," Crosby said of Coyne, who made history as the first woman to compete in the NHL All-Star Skills competition in January when she participated in the Fastest Skater event.

That year, Zach Aston-Reese was in his sophomore season for the Huskies. On game days when the teams were both at home, the women's team would play first, so the men's team would watch the first period of their games while they ate lunch.

"Kendall Coyne…" Aston-Reese began before laughing and shaking his head. "She was SO good. She skates like Sid. It's crazy. She's fun to watch."

Aston-Reese's biggest takeaways from watching the women's game is similar to Crosby's.

"They're so skilled and fast," Aston-Reese said. "I know whenever USA plays Canada they're not allowed to hit, but those games get pretty feisty. Those ones are fun to watch, especially."

When he was at the University of Minnesota, Nick Bjugstad played with four future Olympic gold medalists - Amanda Kessel, Hannah Brandt, Megan Bozek and Lee Stecklein. Since their arenas were connected to each other and they shared the same facilities, the men's and women's teams saw a lot of each other.

"They're awesome and fun girls," Bjugstad said. "They work hard. Like, really hard. Sometimes they'd come out, like one time we had Kessel come out and skate with us in a summer pickup game and she fit right in. It's pretty amazing how good these girls are."

In addition to their speed and skill, the hockey IQ is what sticks out to Bjugstad the most about the women's game.

"They can think the game just as well as we can, if not better," he said. "So it's definitely fun to watch them play."

Bjugstad hopes to attend Sunday's game, which is also sold out, with his wife Jackie. He tries to support Team USA every time he can, and is pretty pumped to see that he'll be joined by hundreds of others.

"It's amazing to see how the game keeps growing for the girls," he said. "They work so hard, so it's a fun game to watch and very entertaining and it's even better when they're playing Canada. We're excited."

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