Border battle

KIRK PENTON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:15 AM ET

There's nothing like a date with the Americans to get Hayley Wickenheiser fired up.

"I try to prepare exactly the same for Germany or U.S. or whoever it is, but the emotion level, the stakes, are higher," the Canadian captain said yesterday. "You know that. You can feel it. You can feel it in the crowd.

"Everybody's expecting a battle, so you sort of go into that warrior mentality a little bit more than you would against a Germany or someone like that.

"... This is real hockey. This is when hockey gets fun."

Canada, which breezed through the preliminary round without allowing a goal, meets the U.S. this afternoon at MTS Centre in their first playoff-round game at the World Women's Hockey Championship.

Game time is 3:30 p.m. (TSN), and the place should be rocking, as there could be a sellout crowd of more than 15,000 spectators.

Everyone -- well, except for maybe Team Finland -- believes today's tilt is simply a preview of Tuesday's gold-medal match. Regardless of today's outcome, if the U.S. and Canada beat Finland tomorrow and Monday, respectively, they will meet again for all the marbles on Tuesday.

SHOOTOUT

"We don't have to win, but we want to win," Canada defenceman Gillian Ferrari noted.

Canada and the U.S. have met in the all nine world finals, and the Americans got their first championship in 2005 when they beat the Canucks 1-0 in a shootout.

But a lot has happened since. The Americans lost to Sweden in a semifinal at last year's Olympics, and Canada whipped the Swedes in the gold-medal match.

"As much as they're the defending (world) champions, there's a lot more pressure on us," Ferrari said. "They're the underdog."

The Americans went younger in the wake of their Olympic disaster, and several of their players haven't been exposed to the heated rivalry between the neighbouring nations. There are 11 players on their roster who have never played in the Olympics or (until this week) the worlds.

"I don't really think we have to say a whole lot (to the rookies)," U.S. captain Krissy Wendell said. "When they come in here (today) and they see the crowd, they're going to go hard.

"... There's a U.S.-Canada rivalry not just at this level, but at every level growing up. Any time you go across the border you want to show your best."

Canada head coach Melody Davidson got her first glimpse of the new-look American squad in November at the Four Nations Cup, in which Canada thumped the U.S. 3-0 and 5-2.

YOUNG GROUP

"USA Hockey assembled a great young group there, and a lot of them are back here," Davidson said. "They got better as that tournament went on, so I would expect them to be better and I hope we're better than we were at Four Nations.

"... They're young, they have nothing to lose, and a lot of them have not been around for the rivalries in the past world championships. And that can be a dangerous thing to play against."

The last time the U.S. beat Canada was in Winnipeg on Jan. 1, 2006, which also happens to be Canada's last international loss. The Canucks have won 13 straight on the world stage.

The Americans also breezed through their preliminary-round matches, but Wendell isn't sure how her revamped team compares to Canada.

"We have a whole different team," she said. "Some of these people have never even played Canada, so you can never really guess where you stack up until you play."

It's time to find out.


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