US, Canada meet in early Olympic showdown among world's best

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Much more than bragging rights are on the line anytime the Americans and Canadians meet, and the Olympics offers the opportunity to showcase just how good the best in women's hockey really are these days.

No medal will be on the line Thursday. Just the top spot in the best group in pool play along with the choice of jersey color and benches for the next time they play — ideally the gold medal game.

Only gold will do for the United States at the Pyeongchang Games with the Americans mired in a 20-year title drought. And this will be the first time the Americans have played their biggest rival in the Olympics since Canada stunned the United States by rallying from a 2-0 deficit to win gold at the 2014 Sochi Games with a 3-2 overtime victory.

Yes, the Americans have been waiting for this moment since the final horn blew in 2014.

"We've been preparing for this tournament for four years," said Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, a three-time Olympian. "The first two games we're pretty happy with how they went. Definitely some things we can continue to get better at, but hopefully build on each and every game and be at our best when it matters."

That game is Feb. 22 when the gold medal will be up for grabs.

For now, the Canadians and Americans know millions will be watching a game scheduled for just after noon in South Korea to allow North Americans the chance to watch some late night hockey on Valentine's Day.

Canada forward Jillian Saulnier said they try to represent the best of women's hockey anytime they step on the ice. The Olympics only raises the stakes.

"The world is watching, so for us it's just a time to showcase our talents and skills so to be able to play against some of the best players in the world," Saulnier said. "And some of those are on the U.S. as well, so it's an exciting time for us."

These teams know each other very well thanks to a pre-Olympic exhibition schedule of eight games that included the Four Nations Cup. The United States won three of the first four, including two to win the Four Nations Cup title. But Canada won the final four games in December with two each in Canada and in the United States.

Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored the tying and game-winning goals in the gold medal game in Sochi, noted they haven't played since Canada finalized its Olympic roster.

"So obviously it's going to be a big change for both of the teams," Poulin said. "So excited to play. It doesn't matter what happened before."

Even though the United States won the inaugural gold at the 1998 Nagano Games when women's hockey debuted at the Olympics, Canada has won each of the past four, and the Canadians are in South Korea looking to add the only medal their country expects when playing the sport they created.

United States defenseman Kacey Bellamy is playing in her third Olympics and called U.S.-Canada a "great rivalry."

"Honestly, it's exciting anytime we play them," Bellamy said. "We're going to give 100 percent. We have a lot of respect for each other. Once we hit the ice, it's going to be a fun game. It's going to be fast, and we're excited."

Canada stands at the top of Group A, despite both teams being 2-0, thanks to having scored one more goal (nine) than the Americans (eight). Both teams have allowed one goal apiece — both to Finland. Canada beat Finland by 4-1 compared to the Americans' 3-1 win to open preliminary play.

The Americans canceled practice Wednesday after beating the Russians 5-0 late Tuesday night. The Canadians practiced after their win over Finland.

U.S. coach Robb Stauber has tried to keep his players focused on only one opponent at a time, trying to ignore the inevitable game with Canada until a day away.

"We know we have the next game," Stauber said. "We know that opponent very well."

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More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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