Women sweep away U.S.

Record attendance in Ottawa

By CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI AGENCY


Jayna Hefford (right) embraces Meghan Agosta after Agosta scored against Team USA during third period exhibition action at Scotiabank Place on Friday. (QMI Agency/Darren Brown)

OTTAWA -- For Hayley Wickenheiser, it can be only slightly better than this.

The 31-year-old veteran of Canada's national women's team loves the rhythm of a year's runup to the Olympic Winter Games, a purpose to her work, a goal she says amounts to "the Stanley Cup" of women's hockey.

Wickenheiser and her teammates wrapped a sweep of their six-game pre-Olympic exhibition series against Team USA last night at Scotiabank Place with a 3-2 win in a shootout in front of a record crowd, the last meeting between the two teams before what everybody anticipates will be a showdown for gold in Vancouver.

"The joy for me is we can play great hockey every single day," said Wickenheiser, Team Canada's captain. "We have 60 games in our season to do that and that's the best part of the whole thing.

"The number one thing is the joy of playing the game. There's nothing else I really see myself doing. I love coming to the rink. I love playing the game, trying to get better at the game, just the challenge of trying to win championships. Just being around this program, especially in an Olympic year, it's kind of like a pro team. This is as good as it gets for the women's game."

It was really good last night in front of a record women's hockey crowd of 16,347.

"Women's hockey was the real winner tonight," said American coach Mark Johnson. "I told my team I wished we had another period. I was enjoying what was going on on the ice."

The game last night was Wickenheiser's 216th international, the most of any Canadian woman, 11 more than teammate Jayna Hefford.

Hefford scored the only goal of the shootout, beating American goaltender Jessie Vetter with a sweet move from backhand to forehand. Canadian goaltender Charline Labonte of Boisbriand, Que., stopped all three American shooters.

The Americans rallied to tie last night's game with 17.2 seconds left in the third period when Julie Chu's low shot got past Labonte.

Despite the sweep completed last night -- Canada is 7-3 overall against the Americans including tournament play this season -- all bets will be off come next month in Vancouver.

"We've got a month to go home and make adjustments and do what we need to get better," said Hefford. "This series means nothing ... we're not going to look at the record and be too proud, but we're happy now."

The Canadians had taken the lead in the third when Meghan Agosta of Ruthven, Ont., found herself alone in front of Vetter and snapped home a high shot at the five-minute mark for a 2-1 advantage.

The goal was set up by the quick stick of Canada's Caroline Ouellette of Montreal behind the American net as she beat Natalie Darwitz to a loose puck and got it out front to Agosta.

The goal was Agosta's eighth in 10 games against the Americans this season.

"I've just happened to be successful against the Americans. It's a 'I can't stop now' sort of thing," said Agosta. "It doesn't matter who puts it in the net. I've been the lucky one."

Canada had opened the scoring at 5:18 of the first when Sarah Vaillancourt of Sherbrooke, Que., jumped on a puck off an American stick and snapped a shot over Vetter's glove. The Americans tied it a couple of minutes later when Jenny Potter banged in a rebound behind Canadian goaltender Kim St. Pierre, who played the first half of the game.

Wickenheiser and her teammates will be chasing Canada's third gold medal in women's hockey -- to go along with a silver -- in Vancouver next month.

The Canadians and Americans are the class of women's hockey, but the gap has been closing with Sweden and Finland capable of an upset.

Last night's visit to Ottawa -- where the first women's world championship was played in 1990 -- kind of brought things full circle for Wickenheiser. She watched that championship on television back in Shaunavon, Sask.

"I didn't know women played hockey. That was the first time I saw women playing hockey. I thought I was the only one, growing up in a small town in Saskatchewan, playing hockey with the boys," said Wickenheiser. "Now you see a young girl with a hockey bag and a hockey stick and nobody looks twice."

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