5 keys to USA-Canada hockey

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Break it down all you want, Minnesota coach Brad Frost says, but the USA-Canada gold-medal game on Thursday could simply come down to goaltending.

As soon as they're done apologizing for taking their rightful place in the women's hockey gold-medal game, the United States and Canada are expected to put on another compelling show in an otherwise rather bland Winter Olympics.

If that's wrong, players and coaches have essentially replied to those who question whether the dominance of two teams is hurting the prospects of the sport in the Olympics, "So be it."

For those too busy debating to watch Thursday, your loss.

Here's the background.

The U.S. hasn't won the gold medal since 1998, when women's hockey was introduced as an Olympic sport, and has three-time defending gold medalist Canada in its crosshairs. The Americans went home with silver in 2002 and 2010 and bronze in 2006, but could console themselves with four of the past five world championships. No team other than the U.S. or Canada, in fact, has won the gold medal or world championship.

Canada edged the U.S. 3-2 last week, and in two games during a seven-game December series (in which the U.S. held a 4-3 edge), brawls punctuated the action.

With that as the backdrop, former Olympian Jenny Potter, who played on four of those medal-winning U.S. teams ('98, '02, '06 and '10), said she can't wait for another encore.

"The last game Canada and the USA played was so great and a lot of people don't understand or even realize it's that competitive and that skilled," Potter said. "I think a lot of people who do watch for the first time are going to be shocked the level is so [high] and it's that exciting and are going to be on the edge of their seats."

Potter and Brad Frost, coach of the two-time defending NCAA champion Minnesota women's hockey team and former assistant coach of the U.S. women's national team, offered five keys to the game:

1. The power play

Potter
Potter

Potter: "That's the biggest thing. It's a game-changer, and both teams have great power plays. Team USA has great players who can rip the puck from the point with players like Hilary Knight, and others have great hand-eye coordination and can tip the puck in the air."

Frost: "Unfortunately, the reffing has been so inconsistent throughout the whole tournament, every game has been a little different. Staying disciplined is going to be a factor in not taking unnecessary penalties. When two teams have so much on the line, the last thing you want to do is give the opposition an advantage on the power play. And when you have an opportunity on the power play, it's going to be pretty critical to cash in on it."

2. Team speed vs. team strength

Potter: Team USA has quite a few players with great speed, and they're looking to use it. Canada has strong defensemen and forwards, and they're going to be physical and look to keep them down. Both teams like to use their bodies and have speed, but I think the U.S. likes to use their speed and D more and get pucks to the net. They're a little more finesse, and Canada's strong suit is they're a little more physical."

Frost
Frost

Frost: "I think you've seen that the Canadians are going to be strong on their skates and want to play a physical style, and the best way to take speed and finesse out of the game is by being physical. But I think the U.S. has both -- some players with tremendous speed but also some pretty strong kids as well, so I wouldn't label them as just a finesse team."

3. Keeping emotions in check

Potter: "That will have to be a factor, depending on how the game is called by the referees. It will be a highly competitive and highly emotional game."

Frost: "This is important in regards to two things. Both the discipline piece and not taking unnecessary penalties, but also calming your nerves because this is the biggest game of their lives, so not overhyping it and coming out with dead legs because you're so excited and just realizing what the moment is. It's easy to think about the outcome and getting the gold medal around your neck, but you need to make sure you focus on the process as well."

4. Faceoffs/turnovers

Potter: "Faceoffs will be a key factor. In key areas in the offensive and defensive zone, it will be huge. It always comes down to owning the puck, especially in the D zone. Both teams have great people who take faceoffs. It's all going to come down to whose strategy is better."

Frost: "It really comes down to one game and 60 minutes of hockey, and whoever is better that day is going to win. But little things like faceoffs and turnovers, managing the puck, are very important. When you look at Team USA against Finland in the first game of the tournament, Finland turned the puck over in its first shift and Hilary Knight went down and scored and that was probably the game right there."

5. Goaltending

Potter: "Both teams had great goaltending in the first game. It depends who plays in the gold-medal game, but it's going to be a huge factor, not only in getting shots but getting in the goalies' eyes and making it difficult for them to see the puck and control it. Canada likes to use their bodies, drive to the net and get in the goalies' way, for sure. Team USA has people who will screen the goalie as well, and skilled forwards who use their speed to get shots on net."

Frost: "I think this piece is probably the biggest because you can play an unbelievable game but run into a hot goalie and that can make all the difference in the world. We've seen it throughout the tournament and [Thursday] if both goalies are on their games, which is hopefully the case, it's going to be an incredible game."

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