Players on both the Canadian and U.S. women's hockey teams love this part.
It's more about the hockey now and less about the questions surrounding the competitiveness of women's hockey, because they're about to showcase the best in their sport.
Two evenly matched, highly skilled teams will play for the gold medal Monday at the women's world hockey championship at the Zurich Hallenstadion.
"It's just exciting to be in these games where you're just playing hockey," Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser said Sunday. "There's nothing to think about. Everything happens so fast and it's 'may be the best team win.' It would be the ideal game day in and day out."
In the preliminary round, where they were heavily favoured against weaker countries, the Canadians and Americans had to manufacture intensity to keep their performance sharp for their ultimate meeting.
That intensity flows freely now because of the prospect of facing their arch-rival. A pep talk from the coach is not required Monday.
"We've gotten ourselves to the game we want to play in, so I think there's some pressure off now," U.S. coach Katey Stone said.
Games between these two countries are once again a 50-50 wager. The American program stalled in 2006 and 2007, but it has pulled even with its northern rival again.
Canada is the reigning Olympic champion, but the U.S. has won three of the last four world titles, including the last two straight. Canada's last championship win was in 2007 in Winnipeg.
A women's championship isn't held in Olympic years. The U.S. defeated Canada 4-1 in Hameenlinna, Finland, in 2009, and 4-3 in Harbin, China, in 2008. The Canadians prevailed 2-0 in the gold-medal game at last year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
If Canada is going to be the dual title holder, it will have to raise its game from its previous four at this world championship. Only Finland forced it to play in its own end for half of Saturday's semi-final, which Canada won 4-1.
It can be said for both countries that they haven't had much trouble moving the puck on the south side of their offensive blue-line during this tournament. The U.S. outscored their opposition 32-3, while Canada's margin was 25-1.
But Canada and the U.S. will give each other pressure they haven't experienced yet here. Breakouts will be more difficult. Mistakes will quickly turn into scoring chances for the opposing team.
"The least amount of time you spend in your own end, the better off you're going to be and the offence takes care of itself," Stone said. "Defence is going to win the tournament."
Canada has five first-time participants in a gold-medal game. Three of them are defencemen Bobbi Jo Slusar of Swift Current, Sask., Tara Watchorn of Newcastle, Ont., and Jocelyne Larocque of Ste. Anne, Man. Speedy American forecheckers will be all over them Monday.
"I'm just going to keep it simple," Slusar said. "I don't want to tense up. I think we're all really excited for the game and I just want to make the simple plays, support my D partner, communicate."
Jennifer Wakefield of Pickering, Ont., and Toronto's Natalie Spooner are the two new forwards to a world final. Wakefield and Larocque have the experience, however, of multiple games against the U.S. when they were centralized with the Olympic team last year.
The five can all look to veterans such as Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford, Cherie Piper, Caroline Ouellette, Sarah Vaillancourt and Gillian Apps, said Canadian head coach Ryan Walter.
"It will be up to our coaching staff to make sure everybody is at the right level," he said. "Our veteran group, they've been here so often, I've been telling some of the younger girls 'Watch the vets, watch the intensity level. They know how to win.' " While Walter wasn't revealing his starting goaltender Sunday, Canada's Shannon Szabados and American Jessie Vetter would make for an intriguing rematch of the Olympic battle of the goaltenders. Szabados stopped 28 shots and was a major factor in Canada's Olympic title, while Vetter has broken Canada's hearts in a few recent finals.
The head coaches are a study in contrasts. Stone, who coaches the Harvard women, has been heavily involved in USA Hockey's women's program since 2006. Walter is a former NHL player and coach who stepped behind a women's bench for the first time in his career.
With 15 players returning from their Olympic team, the Americans are breaking in their own small group of new players and two of them are defenceman. University of Wisconsin forward Meghan Duggan and four-time Olympian Jenny Potter lead the U.S. along with defencemen Molly Engstrom and Angela Ruggiero. Forward Brianna Decker, another Wisconsin player, is having a stellar debut.
The two countries played exhibition games on back-to-back nights in Ann Arbor, Mich., prior to their arrival in Switzerland. Canada won the first 3-1, but the U.S. took the second 4-1.
Canada edged the Americans 3-2 in overtime to win the Four Nations Cup in St. John's, N.L., in November, but the U.S. beat the hosts 2-1 in a shootout during the preliminary round.
The Canadian practised Sunday afternoon in Winterthur at the same time the U.S. was on the ice at the Hallenstadion. Canada stayed in Winterthur throughout the tournament, so Walter says the arena in that city feels like home to them.
The U.S. was originally scheduled to practise later in the afternoon in Zurich, but moved their session to the same time as Canada's. Separated by geography, one team couldn't watch the other.
"We thought for us it gives us a little space from the U.S. and our coaching staff, but there's no secrets," Walter said. "They know everything, but I think it allows us to work on our power play and fully do the things we do."
Slusar said she felt more nervous prior to the Canadian team's selection camp April 2-6 in Toronto. She'd had injuries that limited the number of games she played with her club team. Slusar was worried she wouldn't make the Canadian team.
"I was feeling like I was gripping my stick in camp," Slusar said. "I'm so happy to be here. I feel like I'm top of the world."
She hopes to be just that Monday, along with her Canadian teammates.
The Canadian Press
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