Canadian women's coach Dineen counting on defensive pair

Canada's Jocelyne Larocque (L) celebrates with goalie Charline Labonte after they defeated Team USA...

Canada's Jocelyne Larocque (L) celebrates with goalie Charline Labonte after they defeated Team USA in their women's ice hockey game at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games, February 12, 2014. (REUTERS)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 1:40 PM ET

SOCHI, RUSSIA - Given how there are wide stretches of play where there is so little action in the Canadian zone that an intermission flood is hardly necessary, they are two players easy to forget.

But if Canada is to increase its string of three consecutive Olympic gold medals later this week, it would be a mistake to underestimate the role of blueliners Jocelyne Larocque and Meaghan Mikkelson.

When you think of Team Canada, you rarely thing of the defence, mainly because there is no need in the vast majority of games. But to do so is to diminish the strength of this team from the net out.

"There is not a high-end glamour part to their role and I do rely on them a lot," Canadian coach Kevin Dineen said of his pair following a final medal round tuneup practice on Sunday.

"They've proven to be rock solid. They certainly were in our last game and our expectations are to continue to put them in challenging situations for the rest of the tournament."

Tough to say how significant the shutdown duo will need to be in Monday's semi-final against the Swiss, a team that Canada rolled over by a 10-1 score in preliminary round play. But with the virtually inevitable showdown with the U.S. for gold just around the corner, Larocque and Mikkelson are front and centre.

"I'm familiar with that role, I've played it many times with this team," the 25-year-old from Ste. Anne, Manitoba said following Sunday's practice. "I take a lot of pride in it. That's always my main focus in all games, to shut down the other team's big players.

"To be able to not give them time and space and stop them from being creative. We know that it's extremely important."

Like Larocque, Mikkelson has been averaging close to 20 minutes per night, suggesting both players have won the confidence of Dineen.

"I'm more than happy to do whatever the coaches ask of me," said Mikkelson, the 29-year-old Regina native who was part of the 2010 Olympic championship team. "I want to be the best at whatever I'm asked to do and that can change in any given game.

"I try to make sure I'm ready for any situation."

As for a situation that seems to follow all Canadian hockey teams, Dineen plans his goaltending call to be a game-time decision between Charline Labonte and Shannon Szabados, though the hunch is on the former.

"Our goalies have played very well," Dineen said. "I think the players understand these are the hard decisions. But I do believe they trust that what I am doing is best for the team.

"Every time you make a decisions somebody is going to to be unhappy, but so be it. That's sports so you deal with it and you move forward."

The tournament has dragged on to get to this phase and the Canadians are anxious to get to the big games. The semi-final matchup certainly would have had more juice if Russia would have won its quarterfinal game the night before and made for an electric atmosphere as well. But the Swiss believe they are an improving team and want to take their shot at the Olympic giant.

"Now that we see we have a chance for a medal, why not go for gold or silver, not just bronze?" Swiss forward Phoebe Stanz said. "The semifinal is a totally new game -- it's basically starting with a blank sheet again."

Good luck with that.

Canada, of course, has won its previous 18 matches at the Olympics and even though the Swiss are improving (they finished fifth in Vancouver) and are guaranteed of their best Olympic finish ever, the gap between them and the Canadians and Americans is still all but insurmountable.

And a pair of Canadian defenders intend to keep it that way.

IRWIN'S DREAM

With each game she missed, Canadian forward Haley Irwin was feeling her latest Olympic dream start to fade slowly away.

“It’s something that you work all year for and you never expect to sit out with an injury at the Olympics,” the Canadian forward said on Sunday as she prepared for her first start at the Sochi Games. “ It’s definitely been a tough road, a different road for me. But I’m ready to go and I’m excited.

“Right now, any time I get on the ice I’m excited and feel like a little kid again.”

Irwin had been out with an upper body injury believed to be concussion-like symptoms. But after three consecutive days of practice - with full contact - she has been cleared to go in the semifinal against Switzerland.

“She’s a full green light to go so yes, she’ll be a great addition to our lineup,” Canadian coach Kevin Dineen said.

The 25-year-old Thunder Bay, Ont. native will be especially important should Canada advance to the gold medal game as she provides high-end depth up front.


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