The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

World women's hockey championship starts now for U.S., Canada

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HAMEENLINNA, Finland - Canada and the U.S. have outscored their opposition at the women's world hockey championship by a combined 51-1 margin.

Players on both sides have been anticipating Friday's playoff game (noon ET) and Sunday's championship game between them for most of the tournament. After dominating the nine-team tournament, Canada and the U.S. are now feeling the heat for the first time.

"We've established we're the two dominant teams in the world and even though tomorrow doesn't mean anything, the tournament really starts for us," U.S. defenceman Angela Ruggiero said Thursday. "The adrenaline will really start to pump when we wake up tomorrow."

The two countries will meet in the world championship final Sunday (noon ET) a 12th time with Canada holding a 9-2 record. But the U.S. are the defending champions and beat Canada three of four games in 2008.

Canada lost consecutive games to the Americans at the world championship for the first time last year. The U.S. also won the Four Nations Cup final in a shootout.

The Americans (3-0) blanked Finland 7-0 on Thursday, a day after Canada (3-0) downed the Finns 8-0. The two teams will meet again Sunday for gold regardless of Friday's outcome.

But the result could set the table for that game.

Canada lost a playoff game 4-2 to the U.S. last year in Harbin, China, to end a 29-game winning streak. Two days later, the Canadians fell again to the U.S. in the final by a score of 4-3.

"In last year's worlds, when we won that first game in order to get into the gold-medal game, that meant the difference because we had so much confidence going into the final knowing that we beat them two days before," Ruggiero said.

The Finns (2-2) will play for bronze against the winner of Friday's game between Sweden and Russia. Russia defeated Kazakhstan 9-2 on Thursday.

Switzerland edged Japan 3-2 to win the relegation round. China and Japan will be relegated to the world B championship in 2011.

For the first time in this tournament, Canada won't have the lion's share of puck possession because the Americans can match their speed and passing skills.

The Canadians whipped the puck around the offensive zone against the Finns with flair and confidence, but the U.S. won't give them as much time and space.

"They're going to play with more pressure and buzzing around the puck and certainly not giving you as much room, so we've basically got to create that space with good puck movement, outworking them and winning the battles," Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser said

Defenceman Gillian Ferrari was excited about the challenge of protecting her own end against sustained, intense pressure as she hasn't had much of that yet this tournament.

"This is the kind of game the defensive defenceman loves to play because you kind of get to be rough in the corners and you really have to watch everything out there because they can take advantage of any opportunities that you give them," she said. "No matter how many times you play them, it's still the highlight of the year."

After getting consecutive shutouts from goaltender Kim St. Pierre, Davidson is starting Charline Labonte on Friday. Labonte saw only five shots in Canada's 13-1 win over China to open the tournament, but the Canadian coach wasn't concerned about rust.

Davidson pointed out Labonte is coming off winning a Canadian university championship with McGill. Labonte also stopped 21-of-22 shots in one of Canada's pre-tournament games against a Finnish midget men's team.

"She's seen a lot of pucks in the last couple of weeks and in practice," Davidson said.

Defenceman Tessa Bonhomme did not skate Thursday, but Davidson said the Sudbury, Ont., native will play Friday. Forward Meaghan Mikkelson moved back to defence, where she played last year, for practice.

In Canada's three losses to the U.S. last year, they were outshot each time. In their lone victory - a preliminary-round game at the Four Nations - the shots were dead even.

"The puck has got to go to the net," Davidson said. "We definitely can't all of a sudden turn into some pretty team where we're going to overpass or look for the perfect opportunity."

Canada came into the world championship having lost to Sweden for the first time at the Four Nations, so they were primed to face the Swedes here and soundly beat them 8-0.

Davidson hopes her team can replicate it's pre-game demeanour from that contest Friday against the U.S.

"Not that they didn't come ready to play against Finland, but there was a little different air and they had something to get back from Four Nations," she explained. "I would expect we'll see the same thing against the U.S. tomorrow."

The U.S. is the only team not to give up a goal this tournament. Half the team has been training together and playing games out of Blaine, Minn., this winter.

The Americans used to struggle to find games and leagues to play in after their college careers concluded. The residency program has made a world of difference, says Ruggiero.

"From Day 1, you have your hockey legs," she explained. "You're not using the tournament to be ready to be final."

NOTES(at) - Hockey Canada announced Thursday that Canada and the U.S. will meet in six exhibition games next season ahead of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver: Oct. 5 in Victoria; Oct. 16 in Spokane, Wash., Dec. 12 in Denver, Dec. 15 in Calgary; Dec. 30 in St. Paul, Minn.; Jan. 1 in Ottawa . . . The Canadian women are wearing the initials AM on their helmets in memory of Hockey Canada chairman Dr. Allan Morris who died earlier this week at the age of 74.

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