PYEONGCHANG, Feb 7 (Reuters) - The Canadian women's ice hockey team head into the Winter Olympics as the underdogs to a top-ranked U.S. squad, but they know they have a mission to fulfill: a fifth straight gold medal.
Canada have failed to take home gold just once since the women's game debuted at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. Most often they have had to get past the United States, winners of that first-ever gold, to earn the top spot on podium.
This year is sizing up to be no different, except that a revenge-motivated Team USA are slightly favored and are as eager to end their own drought as the Canadians are to extend their good fortune.
"We're really confident with where we're at," Canada head coach Laura Schuler said at a news conference on Wednesday.
"I know we've got a great team, a great team with probably the best chemistry, the best group of girls that I've ever, ever had an opportunity to coach, and when you have that, good things happen."
Teams Canada and USA have battled to a near standstill over the last several months in the run-up to the Pyeongchang Games, which run from Feb. 9-25. They split an exhibition series 3-3, but ahead of that, the U.S. captured gold at the 2017 women's world championships - their fourth straight in that competition.
"I think the rivalry between Canada and the U.S. has been there since the inception, and that every single time we've ever faced the U.S. it has been a one-goal difference, it's gone into overtime, it's a back-and-forth hockey game, it's best-on-best competition, and I think that's what makes it so great," said Schuler, who played on the 1998 team that captured silver.
Canada open their Olympic campaign on Feb. 11 against the Russians and then take on Finland before meeting their archrivals on Feb. 14. Schuler's players say they aren't looking past those first two games, though.
"We can't take any team for granted. We're on a mission here," said forward Meghan Acosta, one of Canada's assistant captains.
"When we look too far ahead that's when we lose sight of our goals."
They are also not worried about having their southern neighbors seen as the team to beat this year, either.
"They're too shy to say it, but we love being the underdog," team Canada General Manager Melody Davis said. "We'll take that any day." (Reporting By Dan Burns; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)