US, Canada women favorites for hockey world championships

The American women have beaten Canada in seven of the last eight world hockey championship finals, including a 3-2 overtime win two years ago in Michigan.

Most expect another showdown between the top two national teams at this worlds, which opens Thursday in Espoo, Finland. Canada will play Switzerland and U.S. faces host Finland.

Canada hasn’t beaten the U.S. in a tournament final since the 2014 Four Nations Cup and hasn’t won the world title since 2012. Still, taking two of three games against their Olympic champion frenemies to win February’s “Rivalry Series” gives Canada some momentum.

“Our goal in the February series wasn’t to come away with wins. That was a bonus,” veteran forward Brianne Jenner told The Canadian Press. “Our goal was to establish the way we want to play and take steps forward toward the performance you want in the world championships. Obviously, it’s reassuring when you’re able to play that way and get some wins as well. We look at it as a good step in the right direction, but we know there’s a bit of a ways to go to get gold in Finland.”

The tournament features 10 teams for the first time, expanding an eight-team format that has been in place since 2010. Women’s hockey at the 2022 Winter Olympics also will be a 10-team tournament.

The world championship format was revamped after 2010. The top two seeds in Group A never faced the bottom two in Group B, which eliminated a pair of lopsided scores from the tournament. The world’s top five seeds — defending champion United States, Canada, Finland, Russia, Switzerland — are in Group A in Espoo. Sweden, Japan, Germany, Czech Republic and France, ranking sixth to 10th, comprise Group B.

What’s different this year is the prospect of Canada and the U.S. playing quarterfinal games against a Group B opponent: There are no longer byes to the semifinals for the top two teams in Group A ahead of the April 14 final.

Gina Kingsbury, Hockey Canada’s director of women’s national teams, said two more countries in the world championship can help grow the game — and she likes having the Canadian team playing together in a non-Olympic year.

“To me, it’s a win-win,” Kingsbury said. “It allows us to build some critical experience with our group. I do like the schedule more and how it’s spread out. There is a bit of a routine there that can come into place.”

Canada must play a game at least every second day in Espoo to reach the final.

“When I look at the world championship schedule, to me that’s exactly a best-of-seven series in the NHL,” head coach Perry Pearn said. “You have to get up on game days, you’ve got to be energized and ready to go. The day after, you’ve got to come down a little bit, get relaxed, stay relaxed, be able to rest and then you get back up for the next one.”

Notes: Canadian captain and forward Marie-Philip Poulin didn’t play for Les Canadiennes de Montreal in her team’s Clarkson Cup semifinal series or the March 24 final because of a lower-body injury. Her status is unknown for the world tournament.