BEIJING – Ladies and gentlemen, the main event.
In this corner, wearing the red and white jerseys with the maple leaf on the front, the defending IIHF Women’s World Champions, the challenger from Canada.
And in this corner, sporting the red, white and blue colors with the letters U-S-A across their chests, the defending Olympic gold medalists from the United States.
If only Michael Buffer was here to hype a clash of these North American hockey heavyweights that really needs no hyping at all.
You’ve heard of the Thrilla in Manilla? The Rumble in the Jungle? This is the Battle in Beijing, pitting the only two countries to ever skate off Olympic ice with gold medals hanging around their neck.
It’s the game everyone has been waiting for. The one everyone has been asking about. And despite their diplomatic responses about taking it one game at a time and the tough opponents they’ve faced along the way, the day has come that both teams circled on their calendars long before they arrived inside the Beijing bubble.
“Any time the U.S. and Canada play, it could be on a pond and you put two of those jerseys on and certainly all of a sudden the intensity ramps up,” said U.S. head coach Joel Johnson.
“It’s about the pride for Canada wearing the maple leaf and for us wearing the red, white, and blue. It just never gets old. It’s one of the best rivalries in sports.”
This will mark the fifth time these rivals have met in a gold-medal match, with Canada holding a slim advantage of three titles to two.
Their most recent Olympic clash took place four years ago in PyeongChang, South Korea, where Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson dangled a goal for the ages and Maddie Rooney stole the show in net to put an exclamation point on an edge-of-your-seat shootout.
Only one time in the history of women’s ice hockey in the Olympics have they not met in the gold-medal match. That was in 2006 when Sweden shocked the U.S. in a semifinal shootout, leaving the Americans with a bronze medal.
That was a Halley’s Comet moment in hockey. It may come around again in our lifetime, especially given the strides other countries have made, but it may take a few more trips around the sun before these two relinquish their place on the top of the podium.
Both teams took different paths to get here. The Canadian express has steamrolled the competition by a record-setting margin of 54 to 8, including a 4-2 victory over the U.S. to close out the preliminary round.
The U.S. has outscored opponents by a slightly less gaudy margin of 28-8 while peppering goalies with an average of 55 shots on goal per game.
In their first meeting, the U.S. nearly doubled the Canadian shot total (53-27) but could only sneak two goals past Ann-Renee Desbiens. That’s sent the U.S. coaching staff back to the dry erase board as they look to generate more quality scoring chances.
“We’re getting a lot of shots, but not a lot of goals,” Johnson said. “ I wouldn’t say we’re struggling to score. We’re just not generating the highest quality chances as compared to just settling for some shots that are fairly easy to save.”
They have worked on changing the point of the attack and getting the defense more involved in the play, just as Cayla Barnes was when she moved in from her point position to receive a Hannah Brandt pass in the slot to score a power-play goal in the semifinals.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best game yet,” Johnson said. “When we played them the last time I thought we were pretty good, but we didn’t generate enough great opportunities to score.”
It’s not that the U.S. needs to score in bunches to be successful. Blessed with an abundance of riches in goal, the U.S. has been tightlipped about who will get the starting nod throughout the tournament, but have named Alex Cavallini the starter for the 2022 Olympic finale.
Since bringing the team together in early October for a residency camp in Blaine, Minn., Johnson has tried to boil the Olympic odyssey down to a simple equation.
“Our message to the team has been, it’s four years for four months and four months for two weeks and two weeks to get to two hours on the [Feb.] 17th,” he said.
Those two hours are now at hand. There’s nothing else to write and nothing else to say except, “Let’s get ready to rumble.”