VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- If ever there was a lesson in the wisdom of not looking too far ahead, the Turin Olympics provided that in the women's hockey tournament.
The much-anticipated gold-medal game between the United States and Canada never materialized because the U.S. women were upset by Sweden in the semifinals. That's why each time the intriguing possibility of a U.S.-Canada showdown is brought up here -- and it's mentioned a lot -- members of the U.S. team insist they haven't mentally jumped past their preliminary-round games.
Team USA, No. 1 in the International Ice Hockey Federation rankings but seeded second here, will begin Group B play Sunday at noon PST against China at the University of British Columbia's Thunderbird Arena.
It should be a romp: the U.S. has never lost to China in eight matches at the Olympics and world championships and has outscored China, 73-7, in those games. China, which has fewer than 200 players to choose from, didn't qualify for the Turin Olympics and is ranked ninth in the world.
But the U.S. players and coaches have learned never to say never, and they're deflecting all talk about anything beyond the task immediately at hand.
"On the 14th we play China and I think that's our focus right now," team captain Natalie Darwitz said earlier this week. "A couple more good practices coming up and then dropping the puck on the 14th."
Coach Mark Johnson has helped his players stay focused on each moment. "In this tournament you can't have any hiccups," he said, and as a member of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" U.S. team, he's speaking from experience.
"You have to play your best hockey. Everybody anticipates what this tournament is going to look like, but obviously I've seen different things from a playing standpoint 30 years ago where expectations for certain teams were on a level where some of those teams couldn't meet those expectations," he said.
"We need to concentrate on China. We've got young players. We've got players that this is the first time they've experienced the Olympics and so they can't look ahead."
The Chinese women finished fourth in 1998 and seventh in 2002 before failing to qualify for the 2006 Games. Since then they've worked on centralizing their program and have imported a Finnish coach, Hannu Saintula, who has coached them the last eight months.
Johnson said he has seen an increase in the Chinese players' collective skill level, saying they're "in a better place right now" than they were before Saintula's arrival.
"He's a very good coach from the standpoint he makes his players better. After watching one of their practices you could see that," Johnson said. "Their skill level, their preparation, they've been training the last 11 months, working out two, three times a day. When you watch a practice, their skill level has gotten better.
"The product that we're going to see compared to years past is going to be better because of his input and his dedication to making their program stronger."
The U.S. program has gotten stronger, too. Four-time Olympian Jenny Potter, 31, said making this team was challenging because the younger candidates so strongly pushed the older ones.
"The women's game has come up tremendously as far as the level, the talent, the skills," she said.
The only real question for the U.S. was whether forward Hilary Knight of Hanover, N.H., the leading scorer in pre-Olympic play, would recover from the lower-body injury that kept her out of the lineup for the last two games before the team arrived in Vancouver. Knight, who had 13 goals and 30 points in 22 games, has been able to practice here without restrictions and is expected to be at full strength.
"As we've stated since back in August, the expectations are very high. That's a good thing especially when you're starting out because players understand what they're going to have to do," Johnson said.