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Catching Canada is the challenge at women’s hockey worlds

Team Canada coach: ‘Let’s win another one, that’s the mindset’
Marie-Philip Poulin (29) of Canada celebrates with teammate Brianne Jenner (19) after scoring against the USA during second period Rivalry Series hockey action in Laval, Que., Wednesday, February 22, 2023. Canada opens defence of its women’s world hockey championship against Switzerland on Wednesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Troy Ryan doesn’t put much stock into the word “defending.”

It’s not something Canada’s coach emphasizes when it comes to the aggressive, push-the-puck style his team introduced to women’s hockey when outscoring the competition 57-10 to win gold at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

And it’s not something Ryan is going to stress despite the Canadians being the two-time defending world champions entering the International Ice Hockey Federation tournament this week.

“We don’t want to sit back and defend. So off-ice, it’s our same mentality,” Ryan said. “Why should we try to defend anything? We want to win something, right?”

Catch Canada if you can might well be the message Ryan and his experience-laden roster has for the rest of the globe — and specifically the rival United States — in preparing to open the 10-nation, 12-day world championships on home soil in suburban Toronto on Wednesday.

“We’re focused on winning this world championship. We don’t feel any extra pressure because we won a couple,” Ryan said. “Let’s win another one. That’s the mindset.”

If that’s the case in a sport in which Canada and the United States have historically dominated, much of the burden falls on a younger, retooling USA team to stand in the Canadians’ way.

It won’t be easy, said second-year U.S. coach John Wroblewski, whose team features five skaters making their world tournament debuts, and without captain Kendall Coyne Schofield, who is taking this year off after announcing her pregnancy.

“We have an opportunity that’s legit to grow the game here,” Wroblewski said of a roster including 12 skaters who played at the college level this season.

“I think that’s one that really does set up well for success in this tournament,” he added. “And whether or not we can catch up to Canada athletically and with our lack of experience at the end of day is what will determine where we stack up.”

Canada is the favorite with a roster featuring one player making her national team debut in forward Danielle Serdachny, coming off a college season at Colgate in which she led the nation with 70 points in 39 games.

Otherwise, Canada’s lineup is led by established stars such as captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who has four gold-medal clinching goals against the Americans in Olympic and world competition, Sarah Nurse, who’s 19 points in 2022 were an Olympic record, and Brianne Jenner, who scored both goals in Canada’s 2-1 win over the U.S. in last year’s world championship final.

American forward Hilary Knight isn’t conceding anything in preparing to compete in her 13th world tournament.

“We’re hungry and we’re ready for any obstacle and opportunity that comes our way,” the 33-year-old said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the best Team USA yet.”

Knight stated something similar last summer, before the Americans beat Canada 5-2 in the preliminary round and fell short in the final in Denmark.

For Wroblewski, the loss was a lesson in how tenacious Canada became with a medal on the line, and something he hopes to address this time by getting the Americans to set the tone earlier with the high-tempo style he’s introduced. He’s also counting on having his relatively new group of players gel and develop as the tournament progresses.

“It’ll be the team that can peak in these international competitions that is usually the one that ends up winning,” he said. “So we really will have to ascend to catch (Canada) and jump over them in this short period of time.”

Aside from Knight, the Americans feature several familiar faces in forwards Alex Carpenter and Amanda Kessel and defender Lee Stecklein. The youth movement is headed by defender Caroline Harvey, who helped Wisconsin win an NCAA title in her freshman season, and Minnesota’s Taylor Heise, who had a tournament-leading 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in her worlds debut last year.

The U.S. is young in goal, too. Though Nicole Hensley returns for her fifth tournament, she’ll be backed up by Aerin Frankel, who had one mop-up role appearance last year, and newcomer Abbey Levy.

Canada is led in goal by Ann-Renee Desbiens, who has a combined 18-0 record in Olympic and world championship play, and backed up by Emerance Maschmeyer (6-2).

Desbiens eagerly anticipates resuming Canada’s rivalry against the U.S.

“We want bragging rights,” Desbiens said.

“You always want to beat the best team, play against the best team. And they’ve been the team that’s given us the most opposition,” she added, referring to the Americans. “So obviously, we love playing them, we love beating them, and we’re going to keep going that way.”

A tournament subplot features a growing rivalry between the Czech Republic and Finland. The Czechs made the jump to the A Pool after a 2-1 overtime win over Finland in last year’s quarterfinals, and then defeated Switzerland to win their first bronze medal in tournament play.

The loss relegated Finland to the B Pool a mere three years after the Finns upset Canada at the 2019 world championships and won silver after a shootout loss to the United States.

“A little angry about that,” Finland coach Juuso Toivola said of being relegated. “That’s not the way we want to play. And that’s not the level we are. So we are full of strength to do better this time.”

—John Wawrow, The Associated Press