BEDFORD, Mass. — BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) — For the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team, the road to Sochi begins against Canada on Saturday night — the first of a half-dozen exhibitions between the gold medal favorites.
"There's definitely a level of excitement and energy," Reagan Carey, the general manager of the U.S. team, said in a telephone interview after the team bus arrived in Burlington, Vt., on Friday afternoon. "We've had a few games already, but certainly the first game against Canada, they're really ready to go. Everybody's trying to pace themselves also. We're trying to stay focused on what we need to do at the end of the road here."
Canada and the United States are the dominant teams in women's hockey, winning every Olympic gold medal and all but one of the silvers. They also have met in the world championship finals every single time.
So even though this is only the first exhibition of a pre-Olympic tuneup tour, the opportunity to face the Canadians adds a little extra to the matchup. They last played in the final of the world championships in Ottawa, with the Americans winning the gold medal game 3-2.
"It's still very early in our tour, so I think for both teams it will be kind of 'get your feet wet' games," forward Kelli Stack said. "Obviously, we take them all seriously. But the closer it gets to the actual Olympics the more serious they become."
Canada is 10-5 against the United States in the world championship finals, but the U.S. has won four of the last five, including the 2013 title game. The Canadians also have won the last three Olympic gold medals.
"The past is the past," said defenseman Anne Schleper, who was not on the team that lost to Canada in the 2010 Olympic final but did beat them in this year's world championships. "It's liberating just to think we get two shots at Canada in the next week here. Not just Canada, but the whole journey is a dream come true and I just hope I can say I'm on that final roster for Sochi."
The teams are scheduled to meet in six exhibition games plus the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y., in November. After Burlington, they will play outside of Montreal on Thursday and then in December in Calgary, Alberta; Grand Forks, N.D.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Toronto.
"It's a great rivalry, and we really look forward to playing them throughout the year just because it's the best teams in the world," Stack said. "Any time you play them you want to win."
They will also play in the preliminary round of the Olympics. But the game everyone is anticipating is the gold medal game in Sochi on Feb. 20.
Even if the players won't talk about that yet.
"It's still early. We have to remember that," Schleper said. "Obviously, our goal as a team is to be in that gold medal game and to win the gold medal game. But we can't look past the competition. If we don't show up or if Canada doesn't show up in one of those games, it could be a different outcome."
Both countries opened training camp this fall — Canada in Calgary, and the U.S. outside of Boston — and have been playing against boy's junior teams to stay sharp. Canada coach Dan Church said having a chance to measure his team against its top competition will be helpful.
"Every time you get to play them it's a great opportunity to learn about your own team and what you need to do to get better," Church told the Canadian Press. "I think any times these two teams get to play each other, I think emotion takes over and the passion for your national pride comes to the forefront and it becomes a battle. There's a good amount of animosity between the players and ultra-competitiveness."
Both sides said they would resist revealing all of their secrets early on in the exhibition season. But Canadian forward Caroline Ouellette said it would be hard to hold back.
"When we face each other, we go really hard at one another," she told the CP. "It's going to be played very physical with a lot of passion. I really look forward to see where we are at this point in our preparation compared to them."