Women’s national hockey team breaking in young defence

The Canadian women’s hockey team is preparing to work overtime if necessary at the Four Nations Cup.

The Canadian women’s hockey team is preparing to work overtime if necessary at the Four Nations Cup.

Canada opens defence of its title Wednesday against Finland in Nykoping, Sweden. Canada then faces world champion United States on Thursday before concluding the preliminary round Saturday versus host Sweden.

The medal games are Sunday.

If it’s possible, the Canada-U.S. rivalry in women’s hockey has become even more heated since Canada beat the U.S. 2-0 to win gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

In seven meetings since the Olympics, four games have either gone to overtime or a shootout. Two of those were tournament finals.

Canada edged the U.S. 3-2 in overtime to win last year’s Four Nations in St. John’s, N.L. The Americans had beaten the hosts 3-2 in a shootout in the preliminary round there.

The U.S. downed Canada 3-2 in overtime to win a third straight world championship in April.

In the most recent game between the two countries in September, Canada got by the Americans 4-3 in a shootout in an exhibition game.

So while Canada is favoured over Finland and Sweden at the Four Nations, games against the U.S. are often a coin toss.

“I won’t object to winning games in regulation,” Canadian head coach Dan Church joked from Sweden.

“I would expect the game to be close,” he continued. “They always are. It’s always a battle and always a war. I won’t be surprised if it goes to overtime or a shootout. Hopefully we’ll be able to get it done in 60 minutes.”

Canada is breaking in a young defence at this tournament. Of the seven defencemen named to this roster, none were on Canada’s victorious Olympic team. Only two defenders played in this year’s world championship.

Becky Kellar, Colleen Sostorics and Carla MacLeod retired after the Games, so Hockey Canada needed to develop a larger pool of talented defenders to draw on for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

So while Olympians Tessa Bonhomme, Catherine Ward and Meaghan Mikkelson will not play in the Four Nations, they remain in Hockey Canada’s pool of players under consideration for the 2012 world championships in Burlington, Vt.

Bobbi Jo Slusar from Swift Current, Sask., and Jocelyne Larocque of Ste. Anne, Man., played for Canada at this year’s world championships. Courtney Birchard of Mississauga, Ont., was in Canada’s lineup at last year’s Four Nations Cup.

Laura Fortino of Hamilton, Ont., Stefanie McKeough of Carlsbad Springs, Ont., Cassandra Poudrier of Lachenaie, Que., and Lauriane Rougeau of Beaconsfield, Que., will make their debut with the senior team at the Four Nations. They range in age from 19 to 21. Birchard is 22.

The inexperienced defence will be tested by the ferocious attack of the U.S. on Thursday and possibly again in Sunday’s final.

“It can only be good for us in terms of their development for the future, being ready to play in those situations and learning to play to win as opposed to playing not to lose,” Church said. “That’s the difference between teams that are successful in overtime and those that aren’t.

“That’s why we brought these player here, to test them and advance their development. Quite frankly, I think they’re going to do fine.”

Up front, Canada will be led by veterans including Hayley Wickenheiser of Shaunavon, Sask., Montreal’s Caroline Ouellette, Jayna Hefford of Kingston, Ont., Gillian Apps of Unionville, Ont., and Meghan Agosta of Ruthven, Ont.

Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored both of Canada’s goals in the Olympic final, did not make the trip because of what Church calls an upper-body injury she suffered playing for Boston University. Ouellette replaced the 20-year-old from Beauceville, Que., in the lineup.

Edmonton’s Shannon Szabados and Charline Labonte of Boisbriand, Que., are expected to split goaltending duties, although Church hasn’t ruled out giving Christina Kessler of Mississauga, Ont., some ice time.

Church, who also coaches York University’s women’s team, will be behind Canada’s bench for a second time this year. He coached Canada to a 4-2 record at the 12 Nations Tournament in Finland in September.

Hockey Canada will name Canada’s coach for the world championship at a later date and Church is a candidate to fill that job again.

Canada has won 12 gold and three silver medals in Four Nations and Three Nations tournaments since the first in 1996.

The Canadians defeated Sweden 4-1 in an exhibition game Monday in a Stockholm suburb and were en route Tuesday to the coastal city of Nykoping.

The U.S. is ranked No. 1 by the International Ice Hockey Federation ahead of Canada at No. 2. Finland is No. 3 and Sweden is ranked fourth. The Americans named forward Meghan Duggan their captain Tuesday.