By Frank Pingue
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Canada edged Switzerland and the United States cruised by Sweden on Monday to set up a gold medal rematch between the arch-rivals in the women's ice hockey tournament at the Sochi Games.
The Americans barely had to break sweat in their 6-1 win but a determined Swiss team gave Canada a tougher fight than many expected even after falling behind early in a 3-1 loss.
Leading 1-0, Canada looked headed for a routine victory after beating Swiss goalie Florence Schelling twice in a 23-second span and pulling ahead 3-0 less than 12 minutes into the opening period.
But Switzerland got on the board early in the second period and kept pressing while the three-time defending gold medalists were unable to beat Schelling the rest of the way despite outshooting the Swiss 48-22.
"We knew that they have a great team and a great goalie and we just kept coming, we stuck with the game plan and they gave us a run for our money," Canada's Meghan Agosta told reporters.
"That just goes to show you that women's hockey is getting a lot better and a lot of teams are getting a lot stronger and that's what we want."
Canada beat the United States 2-0 in the final at the 2010 Vancouver Games and also beat their biggest rival 3-2 during the preliminary round in Sochi.
Ice hockey's two superpowers will play for gold on Thursday.
The U.S. squad got off to a quick start, scoring three times in the first 12 minutes, and went on to outshoot an overmatched Swedish team 70-9.
"From the moment the buzzer went in Vancouver, we have prepared for this. To earn the right to get there has been huge for our team," U.S. forward Julie Chu told reporters. "Now it's time to get back to work and be ready again for the final."
Canada and the United States have decided every gold medal game except one since women's ice hockey was added to Olympic program in 1998. The lone exception was in 2006 when Canada beat Sweden.
In a bid to make the tournament more competitive, a new format for Sochi grouped the top four teams together. While that helped do away with the double-digit blowouts seen in Vancouver, Canada and the United States ultimately showed they are both well ahead of the pack.
The U.S. team all but sealed the deal with a dominant first period where they outshot Sweden 26-1 and scored two of their three goals in a 66-second span.
Brianna Decker helped power the Americans with a goal and two assists, giving her joint share of the tournament scoring race with four other players, including team mates Amanda Kessel and Kendall Coyne, at six points.
After the game, U.S. head coach Katey Stone said her home country is doing its part to help improve competition in the women's game but also put the onus on other nations to help themselves.
"The best players on all these teams are playing in the U.S. college programs. We have done a heck of a job to not only develop American players but Canadians, Finnish kids and some Russians," said Stone.
"It needs to be done more in their own country if they have the resources. The next best option is getting more players into U.S. colleges. Hopefully we will continue to see more European players in the future."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)