VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It's just as we knew it would be: Team USA and Team Canada sailed through the Olympic women's hockey tournament and are set to clash, yet again, for gold. Both teams will be tested tomorrow like they haven't been tested since playing each other in an exhibition game on Jan. 1. While it's tough to dissect stats accumulated in games in which Team USA and Team Canada hardly cracked a sweat, here are a few keys to Thursday's game.
Canada coach Melody Davidson is famous for not picking a starting goaltender until hours before game time, but whomever she chooses, one thing is certain: Either Kim St. Pierre or Shannon Szabados will be in for a veritable onslaught of pucks compared with anything they've faced from their subpar opponents thus far. In 100 minutes, St. Pierre has seen -- and saved -- just 13 shots on goal. Szabados gave up one goal on just 23 shots in the 120 minutes she has played. American goaltender Jessie Vetter is in the same boat. In 180 minutes of play, she has seen just 42 shots, and allowed one goal. But Canada has averaged just over 57 shots in its four games, and the U.S. has averaged 45. Neither team will manage to replicate that average against the better defense it will see tomorrow, but it's likely that both goaltenders will face more shots than they have in the entire tournament. And they like it that way. Says Vetter: "I prefer to see more consistent shots."
It's been a cakewalk so far for Canadian forward Meghan Agosta, who has tallied nine goals and five assists for 14 points in Canada's four games at these Olympics. Teammate Jayna Hefford has 12 points, and Americans Jenny Potter and Natalie Darwitz have 11 apiece. Both teams get significant scoring help from the blue line, so look for the booming shots of Americans Angela Ruggiero and Molly Engstrom, and Canadians Colleen Sostorics and Carla Macleod.
The faceoff circle
In tight games, possession is key, so keep an eye on the faceoff circle. Canadian center Gina Kingsbury is leading the Olympic tournament with a 75 percent success rate. The Americans are talented down the middle as well; Jocelyne Lamoureux has a 65.52 percent success rate, and Potter and Darwitz are both above 62 percent.
The experience difference
On paper, the biggest difference between Team USA and Team Canada may be in age. Canada has 15 Olympic veterans on its current roster, while the U.S., with only six, has taken a turn toward youth. "We have a lot of young energy and a lot of confidence, and we've been able to dominate with a lot of rookies who really believe they can play with Canada," says four-time U.S. Olympian Ruggiero, who, at 30, is the second-oldest player on Team USA. The rest of the team is made up of the future of American women's hockey, most notably a trio of 20-year-olds: Hilary Knight and twins Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux.
Since women's hockey hit the international stage, Canada and the U.S. have met in the title game of every world championship and Olympics, save for the 2006 Winter Games, when Sweden stunned the U.S. in a shootout in the semifinals. Canada has totaled two Olympic golds, nine world championships and 12 Three/Four Nations Cup titles to the U.S.'s one Olympic gold, three world championships and two Four Nations titles. But in recent years, the U.S. seems to have had the upper hand, taking both the 2008 and 2009 world championships. However, the U.S. won only three of its 10 pre-Olympic games against Canada, the last of which was a 3-2 shootout loss in that game on New Year's Day. In the two months since then, Team USA regrouped and is more confident than ever. "We're a different team than we were two months ago," says Ruggiero. "We're peaking at the right time."
Lindsay Berra is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.