SOCHI, Russia – Their mantra from the moment they first came together as a group in Lake Placid, N.Y., has been one day at a time, one game at a time.
That moment has finally arrived, as two familiar rivals will meet again with an Olympic gold medal on the line when the United States and Canada face off on Thursday night at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
“This is what we’ve been training for. This is what we do every single day,” said Gigi Marvin, one of 11 players on the U.S. roster who played in the gold-medal game at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
“Now we’ve put ourselves into the position to play in the gold-medal game. No longer are we training for that day. That day is here. We’ll continue pressing on, pushing forward and riding this train all the way to the end.”
The two teams met eight days ago in the preliminary round when the Canadians caught the U.S. flat-footed and held on for a 3-2 win. The Americans vowed then that things would be different if they met again. The last two times the teams have met twice in a tournament, the IIHF Women's World Championships in 2012 and 2013, the team that lost the first time they met came back to win the gold medal.
“They beat us in the pool play. I don't think they can beat us two times in a row, especially with what’s on the line,” said U.S. forward Kelli Stack, who has combined with her linemates Hilary Knight and Alex Carpenter for seven goals in the tournament.
After watching video of their sluggish performance, the U.S. knew it needed to get better at supporting the puck in their own end, tightening up play in the neutral zone and sustaining their forecheck to pressure the Canadian D corps.
“Their D is pretty shaky when you give them a lot of pressure,” Stack said. “On Thursday we’re going to try to use our forecheck as best we can to make them turn pucks over below the goal line.”
Those changes the U.S. worked on in practice were on display in a 7-1 semifinal rout of Sweden, a game in which they pumped 70 shots on a pair of shell-shocked Swedish goaltenders.
“We were the kind of team we’re used to seeing, aggressive, going forward and not backing up, moving the puck very well,” said head coach Katey Stone. “We’re building here, and hopefully the best is yet to come.”
This will mark the fifth time the two countries have met on the Olympic stage, with Canada holding a 3-2 edge, including a 2-0 victory in Vancouver. The only time the two countries have not met in the final game was at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy when the U.S. was upset by Sweden in a semifinal shootout.
“They’re a team that brings out the best in us, and we bring the best out of them,” said Julie Chu, who is playing in her fourth Olympics.
“We’re going to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with them. It’s going to be a physical, fast game and one where it’s going to be about the little things, who’s going to execute in the end and be able to make the most of every situation.”
And after their final practice together, this team of 21 women who first came together during the summer in Lake Placid, say they are ready to follow in the footsteps of the 1998 U.S. Women’s Team that won gold in the inaugural women’s Olympic hockey tournament.
“This will be our last game together as a team,” said forward Brianna Decker. “It’s a little sad but we’re not going to take it for granted. We’re going to go out there and bust our butts.”
Having played only once in the past week, both teams are ready to get going, knowing that four years of blood, sweat and tears have all come down to this one game. The players are ready and the coaches are ready for the puck to drop on what should be a great game.
“We not only have one more game but we’re playing for a gold medal, and that’s what we’ve been training for the last four years and particularly the last eight months as a team,” said goaltender Jessie Vetter, who will get the start in goal.
“We’ll take a couple of days to tweak a few things here or there, but we’re ready to go. I think we’ve been waiting long enough and we’re ready to play for the gold medal.”