By Frank Pingue
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Canada's women's ice hockey team have triumphed at the last three Olympics but are being considered underdogs by many going into the Sochi Games given recent struggles against the rival United States.
After losing the last four of six pre-Olympic exhibition games against the U.S., the Canadian squad has plenty to prove when they start the defense of their gold medal on Saturday against Switzerland.
"Each Games is different and brings its own challenges," Canadian forward Gillian Apps, who won gold medals with Canada at the 2006 Turin and 2010 Vancouver Games, told reporters.
"We're coming off a great performance in Vancouver and we have come here to try and defend the gold medal. And with that comes its own added pressure but it's something that I think anyone in the tournament is looking to do."
In a bid to increase the competitiveness of the tournament the top teams - United States, Canada, Finland and Switzerland - were placed in the same group, meaning one could reach the quarter-finals without winning a game.
The new format also means Canada, who blitzed opponents en route to the gold medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, will face the United States in a much-anticipated February 12 qualifying game expected to be intense given the two brawls between the two nations in recent exhibition play.
But head coach Kevin Dineen refused to look past the team's opening game.
"I am worried about Switzerland, I can't lie," Dineen told reporters. "I would love to say we are going to go out and put a beating on Switzerland but I am not seeing it."
Dineen took over the head coaching role two months ago after the abrupt resignation of his predecessor but was unable to stop the bleeding and was behind the team's bench for the final three games of the pre-Olympic exhibition series.
"They spanked us good a couple of times ... we know we got our hands full there but we've got some work to do before we get there," Dineen said about the U.S. squad.
"The game is all about speed and they've got speed to burn. That's something we are very aware of. I've seen it up close and personal. We know that they are worthy opponents."
While the Canadian women may be carrying the underdog tag in Sochi, some of the players say that label will offer them added motivation to go out and silence any doubters.
"In Canada, playing hockey we are expected to win gold and I think that's our expectation of ourselves too. We like that kind of pressure, we enjoy it and almost play better with it," said Canadian defenseman Catherine Ward.
"We've had a few games this year against the United States ... some view us as underdogs. But every game in the past could've gone go either way and so I think we are feeling great right now."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)