By Chip Scoggins, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
SOCHI, Russia – The U.S. women’s hockey team held a marathon video session and a couple of intense practices after losing to Canada in the preliminary round of the Olympic hockey tournament.
The Americans felt like they played hard and physical in a 3-2 loss to their rivals, but they didn’t display their usual aggressiveness with the puck. Too often they left the Canadians dictate the play. The U.S. vowed not to let that happen again.
“We said after our loss that I feel bad for the team that has to face us because we’re going to be a different team,” U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said.
Team USA completely overwhelmed the Swedes 5-1 in the semifinals on Monday at Shayba Arena to earn a spot in the gold medal game on Thursday.
The U.S. plays the winner of the Canada-Switzerland semifinal being played Monday night. Barring a historic upset, the U.S. and Canada will meet in the gold medal game for the fourth time in the five Olympic Games that women’s hockey has been played.
Canada, the three-time defending Olympic champion, defeated the U.S. in the gold medal game in Vancouver in 2010.
“I guarantee you we’re going to bring our A game,” Duggan said.
That happened in the semifinals and Sweden didn’t stand a chance. Six players scored goals and the U.S. edged Sweden in shots of goal by a 70-9 margin. No, that’s not a misprint.
Team USA came within one shot of tying its own Olympic record of 71, set in a 12-1 victory against China at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
“We were just on our toes,” Duggan said. “We just got back to the way we play, not sitting back on our heels and waiting for the other team to make moves. We just jumped right on them.”
There has been considerable talk at these Games about the improved overall depth in women’s hockey internationally. The popular theory is that other countries have closed the gap separating the U.S. and Canada from everyone else.
But as Monday’s result demonstrated, that gap is still roughly the size of the Grand Canyon.
“There’s not really much to say (except) it’s too big of a challenge for us at the moment to beat the U.S.,” Sweden assistant coach Leif Boork said. “We know it was one of the best teams in the world and they played good.”
To his credit, Boork showed a sense of humor about the mismatch.
“Of course, it can be a problem for the rest of the world that (the U.S. and Canada) are so powerful,” he said. “It’s not the U.S. and Canada’s fault that they’re good.”
The U.S. scored three goals and outshot Sweden 29-1 in the first period. The Americans held a 5-0 lead and a 51-6 advantage in shots on goal after two periods.
Sweden’s coaches pulled starting goalie Valentina Wallner in the second period after she’d seen 47 shots.
“She had a busy day at work,” Boork cracked.
The outcome hardly came as a surprise. The U.S. is now 12-1 against Sweden in Olympic Games or world championships. Sweden’s lone victory came in the 2006 Olympic semifinals.
The U.S. has outscored Sweden 23-3 in the past three meetings and 93-18 overall.
“I thought we were the kind of team that we’re used to seeing: Aggressive, going forward, not backing up, moved the puck really well,” U.S. coach Katey Stone said. “We’re building here and hopefully the best is yet to come.”
The American women have not won gold since their Olympic debut in Nagano in 1988. Now they get another shot to change that.
“This moment isn’t too big for any of us,” defenseman Anne Schleper said.
AFP Photo/Loic Venance