Canada faces U.S. in Olympic women's hockey tuneup in Calgary
Game overshadowed by surprise resignation of head coach Dan Church
Canada is riding a three-game winning streak against the U.S. in women's hockey, but it hasn't been all smooth sailing for the Canadian women this winter, as they prepare for the Sochi Winter Olympics.
The latest test, an exhibition game against the Americans Thursday night in Calgary, comes just hours after head coach Dan Church stunned the hockey world, announcing his resignation.
Injuries to key players remain a concern as well.
Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored twice in Canada's win over the U.S. in the 2010 Olympic final, remains sidelined because of a high ankle sprain.
The 22-year-old from Beauceville, Que., has appeared in just a handful of Canada's 32 games since September and none against the United States.
"It's tough, but I guess it's part of the game and it helps me build my mental toughness," Poulin said Wednesday.
An opposing player landed on the outside of her left ankle during a tournament against midget triple-A men's teams in September. Poulin re-injured the ankle in her third game back in November.
Poulin has set Dec. 28, when Canada plays the U.S. in St. Paul, Minn., as the next target date of her return.
"As a player, you want to play as soon as possible, but as an organization we have to make sure she's 100 per cent ready before she steps on the ice," assistant coach Danielle Goyette said.
The exhibition game in Calgary is the third of six between Canada and the U.S. this winter as both countries train full-time for the Winter Games.
They'll square off again Dec. 20 in Grand Forks, N.D., followed by the game in Minnesota and then Dec. 30 in Toronto.
The archrivals have met in the final of every world championship with the U.S. winning four of the last five. Canada owns the last three Olympic gold medals, however.
Canada edged the Americans 3-2 in Burlington, Vt., on Oct. 12 and doubled them 6-3 in Boisbriand, Que., on Oct. 17.
Canada also prevailed 4-2 in the preliminary round of the Four Nations Cup on Nov. 6. An expected rematch versus the U.S. in the tournament final didn't materialize. Finland upset the Americans 3-0 to advance to the championship game against Canada.
Canadians staying sharp against men's teams
The U.S. boasts individual speed and skill, which makes them lethal on the power play. But their overall team game lags behind the Canadians, who have played 21 games against men's teams in the Alberta Midget Hockey League.
Those games approximate the pace of competition against the U.S. women. The American women haven't faced that type of competition as often as Canada, so the Canadians were the more battle-hardened team in their three previous meetings.
"When I look at the games we've played against the midget triple-A, even after a month playing against them and then playing the U.S., it helped us so much," said Goyette.
While these exhibition games against the U.S. are key in Canada's preparation, veteran forward Hayley Wickenheiser knows from experience the game that matters the most is Feb. 20 in Sochi.
The U.S. defeated Canada eight straight times heading into the 2002 gold medal game in Salt Lake City, Utah, but the Canadians were the victors in the final.
"I think there's a pretty good awareness in the room that on any given day, anything can happen and the Olympics comes down to one game," Wickenheiser said.
3 more cuts still to come
Head coach Dan Church will release a defenceman and two forwards when he names his 21-player Olympic roster later this month. He cut Winnipeg forward Jenelle Kohanchuk and defencemen Tessa Bonhomme of Sudbury, Ont., and Brigette Lacquette of Waterhen, Man., on Nov. 12.
The U.S. women are based in Connecticut and released forward Kate Buesser and defender Jincy Dunne last week. Their Olympic women's team will be announced Jan. 1 on NBC during the NHL's Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Goaltenders Shannon Szabados of Edmonton, Charline Labonte of Boisbriand and Genevieve Lacasse of Kingston, Ont., have each been given a start against the U.S. and won.
Canadian forward Haley Irwin of Thunder Bay, Ont., will sit out Thursday's game as she recovers from dental surgery. Poulin is wearing a plastic cast on her left ankle.