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Winter Olympics 2022: Team USA and Canada, hockey's two greatest women's hockey titans, meet for gold again

It's the rivalry, it's the showdown, it's the gold-medal game Olympic fans have been expecting and waiting for: Team USA vs. Canada. EPA/MARK CRISTINO

U.S. star Hilary Knight believes her team's decades-old feud with Canada is "the most beautiful rivalry" in the sport.

"It gets the best and the worst out of both of us, at the same time," Knight said ahead of their 2022 Winter Olympics women's hockey gold-medal game scheduled for Thursday in Beijing and airing at 11:10 p.m. ET Wednesday.

It's a rivalry filled with equal parts artistry and animosity.

"Every time we go against them, we want to make a statement and show them that they don't belong on the ice with us," Canada forward Natalie Spooner said after her team defeated the Americans 4-2 in their preliminary-round game.

The U.S. beat Canada for gold in 2018. It was the first time they heard their anthem at the medal ceremony since the inaugural Olympic women's hockey tournament in 1998. Canada won four straight gold-medal games, three of them coming against the U.S. -- it defeated Sweden in 2006, in a tournament that saw Team USA win bronze -- before losing in a shootout in Pyeongchang four years ago.

This is a clash between the sport's two greatest women's hockey titans. Since 1990, when the International Ice Hockey Federation held its first official women's world championship, either the U.S. or Canada has won that tournament. In fact, there have only been two championship games since 1990 -- the 2006 Olympic and the 2019 IIHF worlds final -- in which Canada and Team USA haven't been the last two teams standing.

The U.S. advanced to the gold-medal game with a 4-1 semifinal victory over Finland, who offered a difficult challenge. Canada, meanwhile, has been the tournament's resident steamroller, defeating Switzerland 10-3 in its semifinal and outscoring their opponents 54-8 in Beijing.

Here are three keys to the gold-medal game, the latest chapter of hockey's greatest rivalry:

1. Quality vs. quantity on offense

The U.S. led the Olympic tournament with 334 shots on goal, 23 more than Canada amassed. That included 53 shots on goal against Canada in its preliminary-round loss. After that game, Team Canada coach Troy Ryan said his team could have "knocked off 15-20" of those shots had it managed the puck better and seemed nonplussed about the American shot totals.

"To us, a lot of it is shot quality and not quantity. We are comfortable with them, any situation, any day," he said.

The quantity-over-quality issue dogged the U.S. in other tournament games, too. Canada's goalie, Ann-Renee Desbiens -- whom Spooner called "the best goalie in the world" -- can handle low-danger chances with ease. The Americans must find ways to break through Canada's defense with higher-quality scoring chances, especially in the slot area.

For Canada, puck management will be key in limiting those U.S. offensive chances. But they also have a speed advantage over the Americans they need to exploit more than they did in Round 1. "That is one of our team's identity, speed and the way we play the game. We try to get the puck quick," said the appropriately named Renata Fast of Canada.

2. Stay off special teams

Team USA was at its best against Canada in 5-on-5 play and would be well-advised to keep the action at even strength as much as possible.

Although they scored a power-play goal against Canada in their prelim battle, the Canadians have killed 27 of 31 power plays in the tournament. Contrast that with the U.S., which has struggled on the penalty kill, allowing three goals in 13 times short-handed. Canada has the best power play in the tournament, with 10 goals in 22 power-play opportunities (45.5%).

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The U.S. power play has six goals on 26 power-play opportunities, but it's struggled against this Canadian team for the better part of a year: Its power play went 3-for-25 in last year's world championships and 4-for-20 against Canada in their exhibition series.

As was indicative by its shot total, Team USA carried play at 5-on-5 in the teams' first meeting. Best to keep it even.

3. Stars and Stripes ... but mostly stars

The U.S. lost some significant players from the 2018 squad that beat Canada. Twins Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, who scored the shootout goal to win gold, have retired. Forwards Meghan Duggan and Gigi Marvin, as well as defender Kacey Bellamy, also moved on. Team USA lost another key contributor in Beijing when center Brianna Decker injured her leg in the opening game against Finland and was lost for the tournament. It'll certainly miss her here.

The U.S. will need its reinforcements -- players like forward Alex Carpenter, defender Savannah Harmon, forward Jesse Compher and forward Abby Roque -- to have their best games of the tournament to beat Canada. But perhaps more than anything, they need their stars to be their stars.

Knight, who is now second in career Olympic points for the U.S., had a statement game against Finland, with an assist on Cayla Barnes' opening goal and a critical goal of her own late in the second period. She was held scoreless in the preliminary-round game against Canada. So were linemates Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hannah Brandt. Amanda Kessel had an assist in that game and will be crucial again in the gold-medal game.

Canada knows what it's getting from its collection of star forwards like captain Marie-Philip Poulin (14 points, including a penalty-shot goal against the U.S.), Sarah Nurse (16 points), Brianne Jenner (14 points) and Spooner (14 points); as well as newcomer Sarah Fillier, who has eight goals in six games.

The U.S. needs its best to be at their best, too.

"It's a moment to empty the tank. It's what we worked so hard for," Coyne Schofield said. "It's been a tough year. Everyone's been so resilient through the pandemic, the ups and downs, the postponements. This is what we came here to do."