Team Canada will meet the U.S. in the final of the Olympics for the first time since taking gold in Salt Lake City in 2002. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
VANCOUVER – In comparing the two heavyweights of women’s hockey, former Olympic star A.J. Mleczko likens USA to Rocky Balboa and the Canadian team to Ivan Drago.
Which one will go home with the gold medal Thursday is a toss-up, but Mleczko sees the Americans as the more free-flowing team that plays with more spontaneity and the Canadians as more robotic and predictable.
“Canada is a machine that has rolled over their opponents,” said Mleczko, who won gold with USA in 1998 and silver in 2002. “I think Canada is very predictable, but even if you know what somebody’s going to do, if they’re better at it than you, it doesn’t matter.”
The Americans, meanwhile, are offensively more creative and less predictable than Canada, but don’t have the experience or depth the Canadians have on their roster.
“They’ve got a lot of different styles and (coach) Mark Johnson lets them play that way and encourages them to play that way,” Mleczko said. “They’ve got a fantastic goalie in (Jessie) Vetter who allows them to play that way.”
There might be some parallels to 2002 that Canada would be well advised to heed. That year, the Americans had defeated Canada eight straight times in pre-Olympic play and were on home ice, but lost 3-2 to Canada in the game that mattered most. Mleczko, who is here doing color commentary for NBC, said that was definitely a factor in the way they played.
“I held my stick too tight,” Mleczko said, “and that was in Salt Lake City, Utah, not even a hockey hotbed in the United States. I get that feeling, but then again, you can’t assume that the U.S. was the only team that learned from that experience.”
Canadian star Jayna Hefford said the Canadian team is loose and enjoying and reveling in the attention, not being distracted by it. She said the fact that there will be so much focus on the Canadian team will energize the players.
“For a number of years now, we’ve known that was going to be their motivation going in and we’re hearing that every day,” Hefford said. “But the way we look at it is that was their experience, not ours. We have a new story to write here. We have a chance to make history here. Playing hockey for Canada in Canada is very different than playing hockey for the United States in the United States, so I don’t see the situations as being the same at all.”
Canadian coach Mel Davidson declined to name her starting goalie for tomorrow’s game, but the feeling is it will not be Charline Labonte, who was in the nets in 2002. Kim St-Pierre was the winning goalie in 2006, but the starter could very well be Shannon Szabados, who is the youngest and least experienced of the three goalies.
If that’s the case, the Americans might have the edge in that department with Vetter, who has won the past two world championships. On defense, the Americans are deeper in terms of talent, but Canada has the edge at forward in terms of depth of talent.
In the end, it might come down to preparation. The Canadian team had a rigorous, intense and travel-filled schedule this season that included a series of games against boys teams in the Alberta Midget Hockey League that the Canadians say raised their level of play tremendously. The Americans played the Canadians in the Canada Cup and Four Nations Cup, but lost all six pre-tournament exhibition games.
Some observers are saying this could be the best game in the history of women’s hockey, which is saying something given the intensity of the rivalry between the two teams.
“If we perform the way we can, I think this can be the strongest Canadian team we’ve had,” Hefford said. “I expect the U.S. to be very good as well.”
Ken Campbell is in Vancouver covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for THN.com. Read his other reports HERE.
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