The 2014 Winter Olympics are the fifth in which women's hockey is being contested, and Thursday's gold-medal game will be the fourth between the United States and Canada in what has become a storied rivalry.
It is no secret that the United States and Canada are the dominant forces in the women's game, and while discussion continues regarding the level of competition as a whole, there is no question that the gold-medal contest will be an intense and exciting affair.
Canada has won three consecutive Olympic golds, so Team USA will be hungry to win its first since the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. The United States seemed to have Canada's number heading into Sochi, Russia with several exhibition wins in its back pocket, but Canada has regained some momentum.
The Canadian women beat the Americans 3-2 in group play in what was a great appetizer prior to the ultimate showdown. The game was so good that Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports had strong words for detractors of women's hockey:
There is no question that some games tend to be hit or miss, but every United States vs. Canada game is truly special. Both teams are stacked with skill from top to bottom, and it will be extremely interesting to see which players will step up on the big stage.
Here is a full preview of the highly anticipated gold-medal matchup in women's hockey, complete with players to watch and a final prediction ahead of the North American clash.
Where: Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia
When: Thursday, Feb. 20 at 12 p.m. ET (5 p.m. GMT and 9 p.m. MSK)
Live Stream: NBCOlympics.com
Team USA Player to Watch: Hilary Knight
Every player in Thursday's final will be motivated to top the podium, but few show that desire outwardly as much as American forward Hilary Knight. The 24-year-old University of Wisconsin product is arguably the most dominant power forward in women's hockey today. At 5'11" and 172 pounds, Knight has rare size that she uses to her advantage. Canada is known as a physical team with the United States relying more so on speed, but Knight is the type of player who can level the playing field.
Knight always seems to play with a purpose regardless of how big the stakes are, so it's exciting to think about the energy she'll display against Canada. Knight was part of the 2010 team in Vancouver that won silver, and losing to Canada four years ago is something that she continues to carry with her, according to Stephen Smith of CBS News.
"It wasn't a great feeling and it's still a feeling that haunts a bunch of us today and it's definitely in the back of our minds that we don't want to feel that way again," Knight said.
Knight has done her part when it comes to getting the Americans to this point. She has scored a goal in three of Team USA's four games in Sochi, and she has five points overall. She got the United States off to the best start possible in the opener with a goal less than a minute into the game against Finland. Doing something similar in the gold-medal game would be ideal, but even if Knight doesn't make an impact on the scoreboard, she will most definitely be noticeable.
Team Canada Player to Watch: Marie-Philip Poulin
Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin was a relative unknown on the international scene four years ago as an 18-year-old, but all of that changed with one big performance. Poulin scored both Canadian goals in a 2-0 win over the United States in the gold-medal game at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and she has been a huge star ever since then.
Poulin may very well be the most skilled female player in the world, and Canada will certainly count on her to come through against the United States once again. Matching what she did four years ago will be a tall task, but that didn't stop Canadian head coach Kevin Dineen from asking, according to Eric Duhatschek of The Globe and Mail:
Poulin's stats in Sochi are modest thus far with a goal and two assists, but she proved in 2010 that she is a big-game player. Like Team USA, the Canadians have a whole roster of players who can potentially turn in game-deciding efforts, but Poulin tops that list.
She has a huge challenge ahead of her since the United States will do everything in its power to shut her down after her two-goal showing in Vancouver, but Poulin has such impressive offensive ability that she could steal the show once again.
For all the talk of women's hockey lacking parity, it can be argued that no two top teams in any sport are as evenly matched as the American and Canadian women's hockey teams. They seemingly take turns beating each other, and while Canada has had more success at the Olympic level, Thursday's tilt is essentially a coin flip. Both teams feature incredible depth and skill both offensively and defensively, quality goaltending and world-class coaching staffs.
When two teams are this competitive, things often come down to one small mistake, one seemingly insignificant play or one X-factor. For Team USA, that X-factor could very well be forward Amanda Kessel. The younger sister of American men's forward Phil Kessel is the United States' most explosive and dynamic player, and she has enjoyed a breakout tournament in her own right.
Playing well on the Olympic stage clearly means a lot to Kessel, who seems ready to turn in what could be a transcendent performance:
Kessel enters the Olympics as the 2013 Collegiate Player of the Year, and there has been a great deal of focus on her due, in part, to her brother. Kessel has proven to be worthy of the hype, though, and she could ultimately be the difference.
It's difficult to measure intangibles and the impact they will have on hockey games, but the Americans seem to be oozing desire, and one has to think that they will be determined to bring gold back to the States. Some will point to Canada's group win as a reason why the Canadians will reign supreme again, but expect this mentally tough American team to use it as motivation and come out on top.
Predicted Score: USA 4, Canada 2
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