By Steve Keating
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Canada claimed a thrilling 3-2 win over the United States in a high-quality contest on Wednesday that showcased the best that women's ice hockey can offer at the Sochi Olympics.
The trouble is that after nearly two decades of Olympic competition, Canada and the United States remain in a league of their own and are the only two nations capable of putting on such an entertaining show.
With their places in the semi-finals already secured, even with nothing on the line the North American rivals were able to deliver an Olympic-worthy effort that had those in a packed Shayba arena on the edge of their seats.
"I think there always pride on the line, nobody wants to give an inch. Whether it is gold medal or not, if feels like it's a gold-medal game every time we play because we are the two best teams in the sport," said Canada's Hayley Wickenheiser, playing in her fifth Winter Olympics.
"We push each other, fans love to watch these games and it's great hockey."
Only once in Olympic competition has another country managed to get the better of the North Americans, Sweden beating the United States in the semi-finals at the Turin Winter Games.
Otherwise Canada and the United States have held a duopoly over the women's game that shows no signs of ending.
The two nations have won every gold medal since women's hockey became part of the Olympic program in 1998 and Wednesday's contest offered a preview of what the final may look like on February 20.
In two preliminary round games before Wednesday Canada had outscored their opponents 8-0 while the United States was 12-1.
"Anytime we come up against Canada it's intense we are going to make it intense," said American defenseman Anne Schleper.
"Our mindset is the same every single game, it doesn't matter where we are playing, who is home, who is away what venue we're at, what tournament it is - we are constantly just doing what we can."
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said on Wednesday it was satisfied with the progress the women's sport is making.
But it has been hard to tell just how much the gap has closed, if at all, between the two superpowers and the rest of the world in four years since former IOC chief Jacques Rogge flashed a yellow card in Vancouver and warned the sport it had to get more competitive.
A change in format for the Sochi Olympics that lumped the top four-ranked nations in one group and the four lower-ranked teams in another helped eliminate the embarrassing routs that had blighted other Games.
But with all four teams in Group A advancing, Switzerland will play in the quarter-finals despite going winless and being outscored 18-3.
"It is clearly happening (improving) and we are very pleased with the progress that is being made," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said on Wednesday. "We are supportive. There have been some very good matches and we are very pleased."
(Editing by Robert Woodward)