The 2018 U.S. Olympic Women's Ice Hockey Team poses for a picture while they attend a press conference ahead of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 7, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- “This is the group.”
Take it from Meghan Duggan, captain of the top-ranked U.S. women’s ice hockey team, that these are the players to thwart Canada in its drive for five straight Olympic gold medals.
Only Duggan never specifically mentioned Canada. Actually, the name of Team USA’s archrival to the north wasn’t mentioned for the first 12 minutes of a press conference in the run-up to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. But rest assured, Canada is always in the front – not the back – of Team USA’s minds.
The game that still rankles was four years ago in Sochi. Canada defeated Team USA 3-2 in the first women’s gold-medal game decided in overtime. The U.S. also had to settle for silver in 2002 and 2010, and in 2006 came home with the bronze.
“We have a really good mix of girls who have felt that pain and haven’t felt that,” said two-time silver medalist Kacey Bellamy, a defenseman who is one of two assistant captains along with forward Brianna Decker.
It’s been 20 years since Team USA won the gold in the inaugural Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament. Defenseman Cayla Barnes, the youngest player on the team, wasn’t even born.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. “We play Finland in Game 1,” said coach Robb Stauber, “and that’s our greatest concern and that’s our focus.”
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After playing Finland on Feb. 11 in Group A of pool play, Team USA takes on the Olympic Athletes from Russia team on Feb. 13 before facing Canada on Feb. 15.
These four teams qualified for Group A based on the 2016 IIHF World Ranking. The top two teams will receive a bye to the semifinals, so both Team USA and Canada could advance to opposite ends of the draw – if they defeat the other two teams in the group.
“Every country is going to come prepared to win,” Stauber said, “and we see that, we feel it, we sense it, and we’re just very, very aware that we’re not going to be the country that falls asleep on somebody else.”
Team USA is already well acquainted with this Canadian team.
Canada defeated Team USA in five of their scheduled six exhibition games last fall – including four straight to end the series.
However, Team USA beat the Canadians twice in November at the Four Nations Cup to win the championship in Tampa, Florida.
But that title, as well as winning eight of the last 10 world championships, doesn’t hold a candle to the Olympic Games and its 16 years of disappointment.
“I think in sport and in life in general, how do you grow without challenges?” said Duggan, a forward who has played with the national team since 2007. “When I think about this team and how far we’ve come in the last four years – the last eight years – we’ve seen tremendous growth, tremendous energy and excitement and positivity. This is a different team than everyone saw four years ago. We’ve looked ourselves in the mirror, we’ve all matured in our habits, matured in our mindsets and we’re ready to go.”
Team USA beat Finland 8-2 in the Four Nations Cup in Wesley Chapel, Florida, where the team moved its residency program last year.
“No matter who we’re playing here, it’s going to be a battle,” said defenseman Megan Keller. “It always is. Everybody comes ready to play and we all want to win a gold medal and take that home to our country.”
The operative word for Team USA is speed, and Stauber hopes to add quite a bit more scoring.
“You will see a team that gets pucks to the nets more than we have in the past and if we do that, we really, really like our chances,” he said.
The goalie situation, however, is fluid, with no starter named among the three candidates: Nicole Hensley, Alex Rigsby and Maddie Rooney.
“Quite frankly our goalies will be the first to say that they know what their job is – it’s to be ready,” Stauber said. “On any given night we’ve got to be able to count on any of them.”
Or any of the other members of Team USA. After all, this is the group.
“Everyone knows what their role is,” said forward Kendall Coyne, “and everyone embraces their role. That’s what you need when you’re a group of 23, to come together and be the best you can be for each other.”
For live video and highlights of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, head to the networks of NBC and NBCOlympics.com.