Canadian women expected to steamroll to final

By

VANCOUVER -- Everybody knows what to expect from Canada's national women's team when the Olympic hockey tournament opens Saturday.

Slovakia?

Not so much.

Not even the Slovakians.

"We never dreamt of it, so we don't know what to expect," said goaltender Monika Kvakova, who will be the busiest hockey player at the rink Saturday when the powerhouse Canadians face the underdog Slovakians (5 p.m. PST). "It will be beautiful to play in front of a lot of people because we usually only play in front of our parents and friends, 10 or 20 people.

"But we trained hard and we don't want to be pylons."

Slovakia finished 10th at the last world championships (and is now ranked 11th in the world) and is making its first appearance at the Olympics.

Canada is the two-time defending gold medal champion and expects nothing less than to make it a hat trick in a weak field after themselves and the Americans, the two-time defending world champs.

Saturday's opener for Canada could be ugly.

Mercy?

Don't expect any from Canada.

"We're going to play as hard against them as we're going to play against any other country," said Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser. "Whatever the score is going to be, it's going to be. We're not going to apologize for it. We're at the Olympics to win and display our best hockey."

Team Canada and the U.S. are the overwhelming favourites in this tournament, again, though Sweden upset the Americans in a shootout in the semifinal four years ago and captured the silver medal against Canada in the final.

Team Canada will play three preliminary-round games against the rest of the teams in Group A, facing Switzerland Monday and Sweden Wednesday.

The semifinal games are Feb. 22 and the bronze and gold medal games Feb. 25.

The Canadians have played a tough exhibition schedule through their six-month centralization period. They had a 16-10 record in their series against Triple-A teams from the Alberta Midget Hockey League, a string of games that should leave them well-prepared for the next two weeks.

"I think the schedule we had was more intense (than other years). We were on the bus a lot more," said Wickenheiser. "We played often three games in four nights in places like Lloydminster, Edmonton and Leduc, barnstorming. We're used to a rigorous schedule.

"Now we come into the Olympics and have a chance to get a lot of rest, so I think it plays to our advantage."

Added veteran goalie Kim St. Pierre: "Every game against the boys was like a real battle. Sometimes when we play other teams, we know we're going to win in advance, but against the guys we were down by two goals sometimes, winning, tying, playing overtime, shootouts, it was really good for us to get through all these situations in order to get ready.

"Right now it's just about getting to the game we want to get to."

Team Canada coach Melody Davidson did not plan to tell which of the three goaltenders -- St. Pierre, fellow veteran Charline Labonte or Olympic rookie Shannon Szabados -- would get the start today until after the team marched in Friday night's opening ceremony.

Whoever it is, they don't figure to be too busy.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca


MORE FROM CHRIS STEVENSON

POLL