Twelve days after it started, the women's hockey tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi will end the way everyone expected it to—with a gold-medal game between Canada and the United States.
These two powerhouses are longtime adversaries at the top level of women's hockey, but the Canadians have reigned supreme in the Olympic arena. Since Team USA took the inaugural gold medal at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Team Canada has won the tournament three straight times, defeating the Americans in 2002 and 2010.
This much-anticipated matchup will be broadcast live at noon ET on Thursday on CBC in Canada and NBC in America and can also be seen live online at NBC Live Extra. Let's take a look at three keys for the Canadian women as they try to claim their fourth straight Olympic gold medal.
Team Canada (4-0) claimed a 3-2 victory against the United States (3-1) in the group stage of the Sochi Winter Games, powered by two goals from birthday gal Meghan Acosta.
The game was also marked by a controversial goal, as detailed by Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports. But a win's a win, and Team Canada enters the gold-medal game with a streak of 19 straight Olympic victories after beating Switzerland 3-1 in the semifinals.
The contest vs. Team USA was just the latest reprisal in what's been an intense rivalry between the two countries over the years. Gary D'Amato of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel notes Canada and the USA have dominated the landscape of women's hockey since it became an Olympic sport.
They know each other like the right hand knows the left, mirror-image adversaries with only the jerseys on their backs to tell them apart.
There are no secrets between them. No tricks up their sleeves. No stones left unturned.
If Team USA vs. Team Canada in women's hockey isn't the best rivalry in sports, it's at least in the conversation. There have been 15 world championships for women, and 15 times these two teams have met in the final. There have been four gold medal games at the Olympics, and three times it was USA vs. Canada.
With its group-stage victory, Team Canada was able to reverse some recent misfortunes against the Americans. The two countries engaged in a seven-game series as an Olympic tuneup, and while Canada took the first three, the USA won four straight.
Fights have been a common theme of this heated rivalry recently. With the stakes so high, it will be interesting to see if the gloves go flying again.
As the most recent winner in this series, perhaps Canada will enter this contest with a mental edge over its American counterparts.
Weather the American Offense
Need an example of how much firepower the Americans have? Just check out the shot differential during their semifinals game against Sweden.
Take that overwhelming statistic with a grain of salt, though. Sweden is not even close to Canada when it comes to women's hockey. In fact, during the Feb. 12 USA matchup, Canada outshot the Americans 31-27, including 12-3 in the fourth quarter.
Who Will WIn?
Still, the U.S. women have a big arsenal of weapons, as four different players are tied for the team lead with three goals so far in the Winter Games. Amanda Kessel (three goals, three assists), Kendall Coyne (two goals, four assists) and Briana Decker (two goals, four assists) have a team-best six points in four contests.
But Canada's goalie tandem of Shannon Szabados and Charline Labonte has been stout so far in split duties, allowing just three goals on 97 shots (96.10 percent) in four Olympic matches. Whoever is in the crease will need to keep it up in what's sure to be a high-octane game.
Expose USA Goalie Jessie Vetter
While Team Canada's goalie situation has been rock solid, top American goalie Jessie Vetter leaves something to be desired.
While she's only faced 55 shots in four contests playing behind a stacked American squad led by defender and captain Julie Chu, Vetter has allowed five goals. That adds up to a questionable 90.91 save percentage so far for Vetter, a number that bodes well for this high-powered Canadian attack.
Once again, Hayley Wickenheiser is playing a central role for Team Canada in her fifth and final Olympics. The 35-year-old, who has two goals and three assists in this tournament, told Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun that she's looking forward to the challenge.
We’re on the biggest stage for hockey outside of Canada, which will be great for the game, but no matter what, playing the U.S. for the gold never loses its magic. These are the games we get pumped up for, the ones we’re waiting for all year. We are the two best teams in the sport, we push each other and the fans love it. It’s good for women’s hockey.
Other top Canadian performers on offense so far include Acosta (three goals, one assist), Rebecca Johnston (two goals, two assists) and Natalie Spooner (two goals, two assists).
These women know what they're getting in Vetter and know it's time to use that familiarity to their advantage. Coupled with the third-period barrage that led to a victory against the USA last week, Canada should have an advantage going into this contest.