PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- The pain of the U.S. women's hockey team's overtime loss to Canada in the gold medal game of the 2014 Sochi Olympics was still fresh when USA Hockey executives began planning how to avoid experiencing that anguish again four years later.
"It was certainly a tough loss for us," said Reagan Carey, the team's general manager in Sochi and here in Pyeongchang. "We went hunting for all the small differences and changes we could so that we could make sure to have success here in 2018."
Four years after their second straight loss to Canada in the finale and 20 years after winning the inaugural women's Olympic hockey tournament at Nagano, Japan, the U.S. women are still seeking the ingredients that will lift them back to the top.
Canada, driving for five straight gold medals, is confident of its position as favorites.
"We are ready. We are well prepared," coach Laura Schuler said. "I know we've got 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."
The women's tournament will open Saturday at Kwandong Hockey Centre, highlighted by the unified North/South Korean team making its debut against Switzerland, which became a first-time women's hockey medalist by winning bronze in 2014. The top-seeded U.S. will open against Finland on Sunday, followed by No. 2 Canada against the Olympia Athletes from Russia.
The top four teams -- the U.S., Canada, Finland and Olympic Athletes from Russia -- are in Group A. Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and Korea are in Group B. After round-robin play the top two teams in Group A will get a bye into the semifinals. In the quarterfinals, the third-place team in Group A will face the second-place finisher in Group B and the fourth-place team in Group A will face the top team in group B. Those winners will advance to the semifinals.
This version of the U.S. team is faster and can move the puck more quickly than its predecessors. The roster has six savvy players who won silver medals at Vancouver and Sochi, as well as an infusion of creativity and speed from younger players, including 19-year-old defenseman Cayla Barnes.
"Our group is a fantastic mix of experience but incredible energy and youth. Every single person on our team brings so much to our locker room," team captain Meghan Duggan said. "And all of us expect a lot out of each other. And we as a team expect the most out of ourselves. It's a fantastic group. It's the right group."
But the problem for the U.S. is that Canada is fast and deep too. And although the two fierce rivals are still the superpowers of women's hockey, other countries are closing the gap. Canada failed to reach the final of this year's women's under-18 world championships for the first time in 11 tournaments because of good showings by Russia and Sweden, which bodes well for elevating the quality of play here and in future Olympics.