ST. PAUL, Minn. -- As the Games get closer, so too, it appears, will the games.
The U.S. and Canada are the undisputed powers in women’s ice hockey, with nearly three decades of evidence to confirm that. And so when preparing for the big show, the upcoming Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, the two rivals have elected to test themselves against each other, repeatedly.
Between late October and the Olympics in February, Team USA and Canada have eight games scheduled against each other.
Through the first four, Team USA had won three and Canada one. No game was closer than two goals.
That finally changed when the teams met for a fifth time on Sunday, with just 67 days until the PyeongChang Games. Playing in the penultimate game on the pre-Olympic The Time Is Now Tour and the first of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, Team USA fell 2-1 in overtime in front of 9,098 fans at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
“I thought tonight was definitely probably more indicative of how our two teams can play,” Canada coach Laura Schuler said.
There’s evidence to back that up. The last two times Team USA and Canada met with a major championship on the line — this past March and a year prior, at the world championships — the game was decided in overtime, with Team USA winning both. The same was true at the 2014 Olympics, that time with Canada winning.
But the trend line, if not always the score lines, is decidedly leaning toward Team USA.
The Americans have won the past four world titles, dating back to 2013, and they’re 12-6 against Canada in games since the stunning loss in the 2014 gold-medal game, when the Americans had a 2-0 lead with less than 3:30 remaining.
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The pre-Olympics tour isn’t always representative, with both teams trying new lines and strategies. Sunday’s game, however, might have given an indication for how the Canadians plan to stop the fast, skilled American team.
“Canada did a good job clogging up the neutral zone,” U.S. coach Robb Stauber said. “That tells you they might be afraid of the speed through the neutral zone.”
That approach, combined with a stellar performance by goalie Shannon Szabados, proved enough on Sunday.
Team USA came out strong, taking advantage of three Canada penalties to pepper Szabados with 10 shots in the first period, compared to just four from Canada. But both Szabados and U.S. goalie Maddie Rooney were flawless to send the game into the intermission scoreless.
Megan Keller finally opened the scoring for Team USA 1:20 into the second period. On a power play, Keller sent a hard pass from the faceoff dot in the direction of Hannah Brandt at the far post. Instead, the puck caught one of teammate Dani Cameranesi’s skates at the top of the crease, and Keller crashed the rebound to drive the puck into the net.
As the game went on, though, the Canadians began to turn the momentum.
Longtime U.S. nemesis Marie-Philip Poulin evened the score at 17:52 in the second when she finished a sitting puck. Canada defenseman Meghan Agosta started the play by driving hard in to the net, and when she tried to cross the crease the puck was knocked loose, right into the stick of Poulin, who was waiting to pounce.
Poulin thrives in big situations against Team USA, having accounted for four of Canada’s five goals in its past two Olympic gold-medal wins over Team USA, including both game winners. Her goal on Sunday — plus three third-period penalties by the U.S. — helped Canada move into the driver’s seat.
Again, though, both goalies were flawless in the third to send the game into a five-minute, three-on-three overtime period.
Finally, 37 seconds into overtime, Canada’s Brianne Jenner scored to end it.
The American players were disappointed with the result, if not necessarily concerned.
“We’re kind of learning each other and learning the tendencies and how the other team plays, and they’re learning more about us,” Brandt said. “So I think that’s going to lead to a game like today, where it’s tight. And the goaltenders were awesome, and I think that was a big part of the low-scoring game as well.”
Rooney finished with 24 saves, while Szabados had 27. Both were named their respective team's player of the game.
The teams meet again on Tuesday in Winnipeg, Manitoba, before closing out the tour and the U.S. Olympic Team Trials on Dec. 15 in San Jose, California. Before going to South Korea, they play one last time on Dec. 17 in Edmonton, Alberta.
These games will serve in part as a proving ground for the last three U.S. roster spots. After starting the Olympic season with 23 players — the amount each team can have in PyeongChang — the U.S. has added three players since late October, meaning three will need to be cut before the final roster is announced on Jan. 1.
The games are also the last to fine-tune before the Olympics, where the Americans will go for their first gold medal since 1998.
Sunday’s loss was hardly reason to panic, but playing in the state with the most registered girls players, and with seven Minnesotans on the roster, the result still stung.
“We don’t take any of these games lightly,” said defenseman Gigi Marvin, who is from the famous hockey town of Warroad in northern Minnesota and played for the University of Minnesota. “It’s super disappointing that we lost because you want to win every time you have the USA sweater on, especially against Canada and in your home rink with your friends and family in the stands, but there’s great things that you can take from this, and we know that this isn’t the end point. We’re kind of in a little bit of a marathon here.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.