Women's final preview: USA vs. Canada

Ian McLaren

For the fourth time in five Olympic tournaments, the Canadian and American women's national teams will face off in the gold medal game.

In the history of the event, Canada has earned three gold medals (2002, 2006, 2010) and a silver (1998), while the U.S. has taken one one gold (1998), two silvers (2002, 2010) and a bronze (2006). 

As another point of reference, these two nations have squared off in the final at the Women's World Hockey Championship at every tournament since its inception in 1990, with Canada holding a 10-5 advantage.

Needless to say, this rivalry runs deep, and is set to reach new heights in Thursday's gold medal game in Sochi.

How they got here

Prior to the 2014 Olympics, these two teams met six times during a Canada-USA exhibition series. While Canada came out on top in the first two games, the U.S. swept the next four by a combined score of 14-4. This series also featured two full-out line brawls, adding further fuel to a fire that was already burning quite hot.

Unsurprisingly, both teams have taken care of the rest of the field with relative ease at the 2014 Olympics, with the only loss between them coming in their head-to-head matchup on Feb. 12

Canada took that game 3-2 on a 31-27 shot advantage, scoring three goals in the third after being shutout through two periods. Canada's second goal was mired in controversy, as the referee appeared to blow the whistle before Hayley Wickenheiser put the puck in the net. After a review, the goal stood while serving to heighten the tension between the two sides in the process.

Here's a look at how the two teams stack up stat-wise heading into the gold medal game.

7.74Team Shooting %16.7
28.57Power Play %27.2
90.91Penalty Kill %90

Goaltending tale of the tape

Canada split their four games between Shannon Szabados and Charline Labonte; the latter sparkled in a semifinal win over Switzerland on Wednesday and has stopped 39 of 41 shots overall, but according to Anouk Grignon of RDS, Szabados will get the nod in the final.

Szabados, 27, was in goal during the gold medal win over the U.S. in 2010, and was named Top Goaltender of the tournament, so Canada will be relying on her experience to get the job done in Sochi.

The Americans have relied primarily on 28-year-old Jessie Vetter in Sochi, a former NCAA standout with the Wisconsin Badgers and a member of Team USA since 2008. In the gold medal game of the 2011 IIHF Women's World Championship (against Canada, of course), Vetter made 51 saves to help her team win its third consecutive gold medal.

Both have played well in Sochi, but only one can add an Olympic gold medal to their resume on Thursday.

Shannon Szabados - CANStatJesse Vetter - USA
36Shots against55
1Goals allowed5
1Power play goals against2
0.972Save percentage0.909

Who to watch for

Team USA boasts four out of the top ten scorers in Sochi, and three in the top five alone. Kendall Coyne and Brianna Decker have shone with two goals and four assists apiece, but it's Amanda Kessel who has stolen the spotlight for the Americans. 

The 2013 Collegiate National Player of the year racked up 97 goals and 134 assists in 114 games as a member of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, and has registered three goals and three assists in four games in her Olympic debut.

The 22-year-old is looking to make an even bigger name for herself with a win over Canada, and she appears to be very much looking forward to the opportunity.

Canada is led in scoring by veteran forward Hayley Wickenheiser, who is vying for her fourth gold medal at the Olympics (and fifth overall). The 35-year-old has scored two goals and added three assists, while Meghan Agosta, Rebecca Johnston and Natalie Spooner have all chipped in four points apiece.

The real X-factor here could be Marie-Philip Poulin, the highly touted 23-year-old who has scored only one goal so far in Russia. Poulin scored both goals in Canada's 2-0 win over the U.S. in the gold medal game in 2010, and her team could greatly benefit from such an offensive explosion by the talented forward on Thursday.

The latest chapter in the rivalry between these two great teams is set to get underway at 9 pm local time (12 pm EST) and if you're any kind of hockey fan, you won't want to miss it.