VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Of the 15 sports, 82 disciplines and 2,000-plus athletes at these Olympics, this surely was the single most predictable outcome: The United States and Canada will meet for gold Thursday in women's hockey.
Monique Lamoureux's hat trick led the Americans' latest rout, 9-1 against Sweden in the semifinal Monday at Canada Hockey Place. Hours later, Canada coasted to finish off Finland, 5-0.
And so ...
"It's a one-game season right now for the gold medal," U.S. forward Julie Chu said. "Who wants to come up and take it?"
"We've been working for a number of years to be in this position," U.S. coach Mark Johnson said. "We're very excited about the opportunity. It's been a long journey."
Think of this rivalry as two decades of butting heads:
• Since the formation of the annual women's World Championships in 1990, and since joining the Olympics in '98, either the U.S. team or Canada has won every tournament.
• In every one of those tournaments except one, the U.S. team and Canada were the finalists. The exception was the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, where Swedish goaltender Kim Martin, the same one they torched for nine goals Monday on 46 shots, stunned the Americans almost single-handedly.
• In these Olympics, the U.S. team has outscored its opposition, 40-2, while Canada's figure has been 46-2.
Because other nations have been far slower to grow in women's hockey -- Slovakia, a participant at these Game, has 267 female players in its country to the Americans' 60,000 and the Canadians' 80,000 -- the gap between the top two and the rest of the field remains uncomfortably large.
But, unlike softball, which was ousted from the Olympics because of American dominance, the U.S. team and Canada at least have each other in women's hockey. And they are, for the most part, evenly matched: The U.S. team has won one Olympics, Canada two. The U.S. team has won the past two World Championships, but Canada won the Four Nations Cup in November, plus most of the teams' recent exhibitions.
"It's still early in the development of women's hockey, in general," U.S. goaltender Jessie Vetter. "Even in the U.S., we're still growing, and Canada is still up there. But every year, the sport will get better and better with more funding and stuff."
"I see programs getting stronger all over the world," Johnson said. "I had a chance to see some of the things China is doing now with its training, practices and systems, and they're a good example of a nation that's going to make a move. The Swedes and Finns have been there for years. But it takes time."
Because of the gap, it is difficult to gauge how well or poorly either favorite is playing in these Olympics until they meet. Consider that Lamoureux's hat trick was the Americans' third here, along with two by Jenny Potter. Or that the power play clicked on an absurd 59.1 percent of its opportunities.
It is the kind of imbalance, again akin to softball, that prompted Chu to say the following after this semifinal, "Sweden gave us a great game."
Because the Swedes only lost by eight.
And so, it finally is the time for the only real challenge these two teams know.
"We've had a lot of great battles over the years, no question," U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero said. "There are times when we have the upper hand, times when they have it. The only thing you know for sure is that it's going to be a battle."
Ruggiero, who played her 250th career game Monday, is the Americans' best player, rugged on the blue line and mobile enough to pitch in the occasional goal, as she did Monday. They also have reliable forwards in Potter, Natalie Darwitz and the Lamoureux twins, Monique and Jocelyne.
But perhaps the pivotal factor probably will be the performance Vetter, who some see as the sport's top goaltender. The Canadians generally are seen as deeper than the Americans up front, and they tend to generate more offense.
Another pivotal factor will be dealing with an atmosphere -- 19,300 packing the arena, almost entirely pulling for Canada -- unlike anything most of the U.S. players have seen.
To that end, the Americans might have found some meaningful inspiration Sunday, when most of the women attended the men's 5-3 upset of Canada in the same venue.
"It was a pretty special moment for us, too, when we came back to the Olympic Village and got to see the boys," defenseman Caitlin Cahow said. "I rode up in the elevator with Zach Parise, and he looked like a 10-year-old kid who just put his first pair of skates on. It was a really great night for U.S. hockey."
Maybe there will be another.