Most regular seasons in sports carry some sort of playoff preview, where presumptive finalists meet on a big stage but with lesser stakes. But few events can be considered as true a prelude to a final as a meeting of the United States and Canada in women's hockey. (Watch live at 11 p.m. ET Monday on USA Network and online via NBCOlympics.com and Peacock.)
Look at the gold medal games at the Olympics. Now take out the 2006 tournament in Torino, when the U.S. bronze medalists lost to Sweden in the semifinal, and you'll see the neighbor nations squaring off in all the other finals.
These are rivals who, historically, could've fought over elevators.
We'd have like a four-game tour through say, Nova Scotia, and you're on the bus and get to the hotel, same hotel as Canada, and we just played them the night before. The elevator door opens and there's five Canadians in it, and they're looking at you like `You're not getting on this elevator. And if you do, you're not going to be very happy.
Team USA won the 1998 gold medal in Nagano, defeating Canada 3-1 behind Sandra Whyte-Sweeney's two assists and empty-net goal, but could not stop the Canadians from claiming the gold until the 2018 tournament final at the Gangneung Hockey Centre in PyeongChang.
That's when Jocelyn Lamoreux-Davidson scored the goal that put the Americans in position for goaltender Maddie Rooney to win the gold medal with a shootout stop on Meghan Agosta, leaving Canada four years from another chance at gold.
Of course these teams have met since then including a best-of-seven series, but Olympic gold is what defines the rivalry and avenging 2018 is at the heart of Canada's desires.
(Some) faces change, intensity remains the same
Agosta, an alternate captain for Canada in 2018, is not back but team captain Marie-Philip Poulin and 2018 alternate Brianne Jenner will make sure that everything is as it should be and no player makes the mistake of overlooking the stakes.
Yes, this is a Group A preliminary match in a tournament that will see all five powers from the group make the playoff round, but it's also a chance to make a pretty big claim as to who the frontrunner is -- which team is the chaser ahead of the Feb. 17 gold-medal match.
Brianna Decker's absence looms over Team USA in a sense but the roster still carries some familiarity to those who witnessed the 2018 run to gold, especially on defense. Lee Stecklein, Cayla Barnes, and Kali Flanagan all won gold on the blue line and two of three goaltenders are back with Rooney, joined by Nicole Hensley.
The forwards include the return of a player with a 'C' added to her sweater and a different name on the back of it: Kendall Coyne Schofield joins Amanda Kessel, Dani Cameranesi, and Hilary Knight to lead new teammates into the tournament.
And while Rooney is back and with her the specter of 2018, Poulin delivered gold-clinching heroics for Canada in both 2010 and 2014 (not to mention the 2021 World Championship versus the U.S.).
So while Sweden and Switzerland arrive with Olympic medals on the résumé, the U.S. vs. Canada matchup is the litmus test of all litmus tests (at least prior to the final match of the tournament).
And if there's anyone left wondering how much this tournament matters to the women's hockey landscape, take note of the goal listed on the youth hockey player card of first-time Olympian Hayley Scamurra:
It was a boys’ team, so they all wrote that they wanted to be NHL players. I wrote that I wanted to be an Olympian. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy to think about