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Once again, Canada stands in way of US dream

SOCHI, Russia - Before departing for the Olympics, the U.S. women’s hockey team received a few visitors at their training facility in Bedford, Mass.

Members of Team USA’s 1998 gold medal team stopped by to share stories and words of encouragement.

“They just wanted to tell us that there’s something special about our team and that’s the way they felt in ‘98,” forward Kelli Stack said. “We want to bring a gold medal back to the States because it’s been so long.”

Team USA remains a powerhouse in women’s international hockey, but the Americans haven’t won a gold medal since that debut Olympic tournament in Nagano in ‘98. Canada has won three consecutive gold medals since then, including a victory against the U.S. in Vancouver in 2010.

The disappointment of that defeat still lingers inside the 11 current members of the American squad that skated off the ice with a silver medal.

“That’s something that’s driven us the last four years and really motivated us,” forward Monique Lamoureux said. “That feeling of coming up short doesn’t fade over time. It really sticks with us.”

Team USA is determined to write a different script when it meets its archrival Canada in the gold medal game again on Thursday night. The Canadians defeated the U.S. 3-2 in the preliminary round in these Games.

The Americans were frustrated with their performance in that game, saying they lacked their usual aggressiveness. They wanted this rematch to prove that they’re a better team than what they showed the first time.

“We’re just a fast, young, resilient, strong team,” forward Hilary Knight said. “We’ve got a lot of skill. I’m excited about the opportunity.”

Everyone should be, too, because these two teams are heavyweights in women’s hockey. Their rivalry is heated (some say hated) and competitive. The teams respect but don’t necessarily like each other. Their games are fast and physical and occasionally angry. The teams had a pair of fights in pre-Olympic games.

“They’re at the top of their game, we’re at the top of ours,” Knight said. “It’s definitely a hot ticket.”

Team Canada holds bragging rights, though, until proven otherwise. The Americans are dominant in international hockey, but it’s been a long time since they could claim to be the best.

Most of the players were still kids learning the game the last time the U.S. brought home a gold medal. To the current and previous group of national players, Canada has remained a thorn in their side, the one and only team that they use as a measuring stick to judge themselves.

“You’ve got to believe that you can do for you to do it,” U.S. coach Katey Stone. “It’s just getting out there and getting hungry. This is not the time to sit back and wait and see what happens. You’ve got to go after it.”

This U.S. team it believes it has the right blend of talent, experience and chemistry to dethrone Canada. They defeated the Canadians four times in pre-Olympic games, but they must prove that they can do it under the pressure of a gold medal game.

“You wait four years or basically your whole life for this moment,” Stack said. “The veterans are trying to show the first-timers that losing in the gold medal game is the worst possible feeling you can have in the world. We’re going to be ready to go in that game.”

The women who won gold in 1998 gave all the current players scrapbooks filled with pictures and inspirational thoughts during their visit.

“It’s in my room right now to read in downtime,” said defenseman Anne Schleper. “We had the opportunity if we wanted to take it with us or leave it at home, and I think everyone brought it with them.”

The gesture was heartfelt and genuine. But Team USA knows the difference between gold and silver will depend on its ability to avoid mistakes and take the fight to the Canadians this time. The time for rah-rah speeches is over.

“You don’t need to find much motivation to get up to play in a gold medal game,” captain Meghan Duggan said.

Especially against this opponent.

GOLD MEDAL PREVIEW

Opening faceoff: Noon, EST. CST

The history: Canada is the three-time defending gold medal winner. The U.S. won its only gold medal in 1998 in Nagano, the debut of women’s Olympic hockey. This is a rematch of the gold medal game at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Team USA has not beaten Canada on Olympic ice in 16 years.

The first meeting: Canada scored three goals in the third period to defeat the U.S. 3-2 in the preliminary round.

Key players: Former Minnesota Gopher Amanda Kessel and teammate Brianna Decker are tied for second in the tournament in scoring with six points. Canada is led by veteran Hayley Wickenheiser, who is participating in her fifth Olympic tournament and served as Canada’s flagbearer in these Games.

Quotable: “They’re at the top of their game, we’re at the top of ours. It’s definitely a hot ticket.”

Team USA’s Hilary Knight

Gold medal games

1998 USA 3, Canada 1

2002 Canada 3, USA 2

2006 Canada 4, Sweden 1

2010 Canada 2, USA 0

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