VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- So, let's just say you haven't watched any of the women's Olympic hockey tournament to this point. Well, good news: You haven't really missed much. And the better news is that you're just in time to see everything worth seeing tonight, when the U.S. will face Canada with a shiny gold medal on the line. So to catch you up, here are five things you'll need to know going into the final:
1. When it comes to Canada-U.S. hockey rivalries, this one takes the cake. Forget the men's teams and the juniors' tournaments; the women's rivalry makes the others look like petty schoolyard fights in comparison. With so many meetings -- and so many of great importance -- they were bound to cultivate a great deal of bad blood and animosity. Of the 15 World Championship and Olympic gold medal games, the U.S. and Canada have met in all but one. They are so much more talented and skilled than the rest of the field, they outscored their opponents in this tournament by a combined score of 86-4 (40-2 for U.S. women; 46-2 for Canada). The U.S. may be two-time defending World Champions, but Team Canada has beaten their rivals in their last five meetings before the Olympics. The teams say they have a lot of respect for each other (which I'm sure they do), but when they hit the ice, respect starts to look a lot like hate. "Hate is a pretty strong word," USA forward Jenny Potter says. "I would say dislike. But you know what? They're great competitors, and it's always a great game playing against them, and I love it. That's why we play this game is for that competition and draw out the best in your opponent."
2. History is one thing, but presently, these two teams are so evenly matched that it's impossible to predict a winner with any degree of certainty. Let's look at the statistics through four games. Of course, the goal differential goes to Canada, thanks to their record-setting 18-0 rout of Slovakia in its opening game. In terms of scoring efficiency, the U.S. is slightly ahead (21.86 to Canada's 19.91). The U.S. may have the better power play, but Canada has the better penalty kill. In terms of goaltending, the U.S. edges Canada with a .959 save percentage to their rivals' .956. There is no telling who's better from a numbers standpoint, so we turn to the players that have seen them both. According to Finnish goalie Noora Raty, the University of Minnesota netminder who played and lost to both teams: "I think Canada have been better here, but if I have to say who's going to win, I have to say U.S.A. because I play there. But yeah, I think Canada is the better team."
3. Both teams are teeming with offensive talent. The ones to look for? Team USA is led by captain Natalie Darwitz and Potter, a 31-year-old mother of two, by the way. The old hat, in her fourth Olympic Games, roared out of the gate, scoring hat tricks in her first two games. Darwitz, in her third Olympic go-around, has earned two medals -- silver and bronze -- and she's looking to complete her set tonight. But the veterans aren't the only women to look out for. Twins Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux are having smashing Olympic debuts, with 16 points between them, and the team's youngest player, 20-year-old Hilary Knight, comes into the gold medal game with 8 points. Knight led the NCAA in points last season; in second was Meghan Agosta, who leads Team Canada with 14 points. She has been the breakout star, scoring nine goals in this tournament. If she scores another tonight, she'll hold the record outright for most goals in one Olympics. Veterans Jayna Hefford and Hayley Wickenheiser also haven't lost a step, despite being in their 30s. They have 12 and 11 points, respectively.
4. Goaltending. Canada head coach Melody Davidson guards her goalie decisions like they're nuclear launch codes, so it's either going to be Kim St-Pierre, the 11-year veteran and two-time Olympian, or 23-year-old Shannon Szabados, who started in net for Canada in their semifinal game against Finland. Either way, they have a formidable body in net. For Team USA, though, it's no secret that the crease belongs to Jessie Vetter, the three-time NCAA National Champion at Wisconsin and 2009 World Championship goalie. Vetter has played in three games and has allowed just one goal, a power play goal, against Sweden in the semifinal. She holds the NCAA record with 39 shutouts, and was recently named Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation.
5. The expected sell-out at Canada Hockey Place could make this gold medal game the most attended women's hockey game in history. The previous record of 16,347 was set on New Year's Day at Ottawa's SBP Arena, but a capacity crowd could yield even more. The attendance figure for the men's U.S.-Canada round-robin matchup Sunday was 16,910, and the women's game, given that it's there's a medal up for grabs, could get close to that figure.