Friday December 18th, 2009

Now that it's official, and the 2010 U.S. Olympic women's hockey team has been named, is the pressure lifted or does it only get heavier from here?

As the two-time defending world champions, of course, the Americans were tabbed the early favorites to take gold in Vancouver, but after dropping five of their last six games against archrival Canada, the balance of power seems to be tilting back into the Olympic host nation 's favor.

In the essentially bipolar system of women's hockey -- the U.S. or Canada has won every gold medal awarded at Worlds or Olympics since international competition began in 1990 -- no matchup means more. And even though Team USA's recent slide against Canada can't bode well, U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero, now a four-time Olympian, doesn't seem too worried.

"On the pre-Olympic tours, we do have an opportunity to see each other more often," she says. "To be honest, it's gone back and forth. Going into 1998, we were dead even in games won and lost against them heading into Nagano, and we ended up on top. The next [Olympics in Salt Lake City], we were 8-0 against them and then ended up second. So as far as the record goes, it really doesn't matter. It matters who shows up in February."

What's been seen so far this season, however, is an offensively potent Canadian team that has outscored the U.S. by 28-17 in eight meetings since August. Seven of Canada's goals have come at the hands of Meghan Agosta, a talented 22-year-old forward who also led the NCAA with 2.44 points per game last season for Mercyhurst.

Team Canada, however, has perhaps been more impressive defensively, holding the Americans to two goals or fewer in their last five meetings. That can be frustrating for the Team USA's attack-minded players, led by University of Wisconsin standout Hilary Knight. The 5' 10" forward, whose size and long reach helped her net an NCAA-high 45 goals last year, scored a tournament-high seven goals for Team USA at the World Championships in April, but has scored just three in the last two-and-a-half months.

Coach Mark Johnson, an Olympic gold medalist on the famed 1980 Miracle Team, concedes that a string of losses can lead to some confusion, but he maintains that the most important thing is staying positive through it.

"Part of the process in getting to the end is dealing with these frustrations," he says. "Certainly, we don't like to lose. It's not fun. It's not enjoyable. I don't sleep well when we lose, but in the big picture.... I see improvement and strides being made."

As the Games near, the Americans will meet Canada twice more -- Dec. 30 at the Xcel Energy Center in Minneapolis and two days later in Ottawa -- before they begin playing for the real thing. These meetings will be the litmus test for Team USA. Any pressure that any player felt about making the team is now gone, and it's time to see if they can regain some swagger going into Vancouver, where the Canadian crowds will be vocally partisan and decidedly not in favor of the red, white and blue.

* Ruggiero isn't the only four-time Olympian on the team. Jenny Potter, a 30-year-old mother of two, will also dress for her fourth Games. "What she's done just amazes me," Johnson says. "The first time I coached her, as we got ready to go to Winnipeg for Worlds [in 2007], she had just had her second child. I've got five kids and I watched what my wife went through after each baby was delivered, and I'm thinking there's no way this young lady is going to be able to help us in Winnipeg. And boom, 10 weeks later, she's on the ice and we're doing conditioning drills up in Grand Forks, and she's out there doing them. And I'm like, 'Wow. This is special.'"

* Ruggiero and Potter also have an entire set of medals (gold in '98, silver in '02 and bronze in '06). But they're aiming to go full circle and get back to gold. A gold medal in Vancouver would complete the set for two-time Olympians Julie Chu and captain Natalie Darwitz.

* Of the 21 players on Team USA's roster, 19 are world champions, but only six are former Olympians. As the men's roster is expected to be (it will be announced Jan. 1 at the NHL's Winter Classic), this iteration of Team USA will be young (average age: 23.5), but teeming with potential. Knight, the team's leading scorer through this pre-Olympic tour, with 21 points, is the team's youngest, just nine days younger than twins Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux.

* The Lamoureux twins are the first pair on a US Olympic hockey team. They are not the first twins to ever play Olympic hockey. Henrik and Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks, of course, represented Sweden at the 2006 Turin Olympics and won gold.

* Goalie Jessie Vetter, who turns 24 tomorrow (Dec. 19), got an early birthday present by making her first Olympic team. The University of Wisconsin netminder set NCAA records with 39 career shutouts and a .941 save percentage, and was also named Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation in October.

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