By Steve Keating
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - Canada laid down a marker in their bid for a fifth consecutive women's ice hockey gold medal by edging the United States 2-1 in a fiery preliminary round clash on Thursday, as one of the great Olympic rivalries was renewed.
The contest between the two women's ice hockey super powers was played at a pace and skill level not witnessed in the other preliminary round contests, the display reminding everyone that the U.S. and Canada remain a class apart.
"It's a rivalry, what would anyone else expect but exactly that," said U.S. coach Rob Stauber.
If history is any indication, the game served as an appetizer before the main event, a gold medal final on Feb. 22.
Since women's ice hockey became part of the Olympic program in 1998, Canada and the United States have enjoyed a duopoly, playing for every gold medal except when Sweden crashed the party at the 2006 Turin Games.
The United States skated away with the first gold in 1998 but Canada has reigned supreme ever since, winning four consecutive titles.
It has been a similar story at the world championships.
Since they began in 1990, the two teams have played in every final, with Canada winning 10 and the U.S. eight, including the last four.
If familiarity does indeed breed contempt, there was plenty of that and more on show at the Kwandong Hockey Center.
While body checking is forbidden in women's hockey, the game was a scrappy affair which would be expected from a rivalry that both sides have routinely described as "a war".
"Yeah, we're not worried about it," said Stauber after watching his team absorb a fifth straight loss to Canada.
"Nope we're focused on the things that we can control, and certainly those games that we played in the past have absolutely nothing to do with our future."
After a high-tempo scoreless opening period, Canada took control in the second on a power-play goal from Meghan Agosta and another from Sarah Nurse, who found the top corner of goalie Maddie Rooney's net with a laser-like wrist shot.
Before the end of period, the U.S. had chance to pull one back when Canada covered the puck in the crease to give up a penalty shot.
However, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson could not convert, sending Canada to the intermission with a two-goal cushion.
The U.S. came out flying to start the third and immediately halved the deficit, Kendall Coyne splitting the Canadian defense and snapping the puck between Genevieve Lacasse's pads just 23 seconds into the period.
The Americans, however, could not complete the comeback with the game ending in a wild pile-up around the Canadian net.
With the victory Canada sails into the knockout round with a perfect 3-0 mark sitting top of Group A followed by the U.S. at 2-1.
"It's always a battle playing the U.S.," said Agosta. "We haven't seen Team USA since December and they've gotten better but so have we."
(Additional reporting by Dan Burns; Editing by John O'Brien and Sudipto Ganguly)