The exciting part about the USA women's hockey team at the 2014 Winter Olympics is that its ceiling has yet to be determined.
While the mood may be gloomy after Canada stormed back with three goals in the final period to beat the Americans 3-2 in a Group A showdown on Wednesday, coach Katey Stone's club has adversity to fuel a strong run to the podium in Sochi, Russia.
It was Team Canada that was struggling against the U.S. lately, as goaltender Charline Labonte elaborated on after the Canadians' victory in the preliminary-round clash, per Yahoo! Sports' Nicholas J. Cotsonika:
I don’t know how many losses we had in a row – four or five. I don’t really care about that. But I know we’ve been a little bit struggling against the States, so I think as a team we’ve been working on things to get better and get ready for this game.
The tables have indeed turned.
A joke of a 9-0 blowout victory over Switzerland was an outright mismatch for the U.S. and the opening 3-1 triumph over Finland didn't provide a terribly stiff challenge either. Those served as less-than-ideal precursory tests that lacked the competitive vigor the Americans would face versus Canada.
That showed up on Wednesday when the USA took a 1-0 lead into the third period, only to watch it evaporate because of a flat level of energy and general lethargy over the last 20 minutes of action. Perhaps it was fatigue from fighting amid a scoreless tie for much of the first two periods, but the team finally broke through with a power-play goal from Hilary Knight at 17:34 in the second.
But that's no excuse for the blitz the Canadians put on, which saw the U.S. enter into a discouraging lull.
Defender Anne Schleper fired in a goal with 1:05 remaining in the game to cut the U.S. deficit to 3-2. When Canada was penalized for too many players on the ice, the USA had a six-on-four advantage for the final 30 seconds or so yet failed to capitalize on the circumstances.
The good news is that Team USA and Canada are favored to meet in the gold-medal game, where Stone's squad would have the chance at redemption—vengeance for both Wednesday's defeat and for falling short in the 2010 Vancouver Games. The hosting Canadians took gold and the U.S. settled for silver in the previous Olympics.
It's not as though the Americans would have been content to beat Team Canada in group play, only to succumb to their superiority with the top prize on the line. Wednesday's loss instead served as a measuring stick—an encouraging one at that despite the result.
Serious controversy surfaced when Hayley Wickenheiser scored the go-ahead goal just 93 seconds after Canada first got on the scoreboard to make the game 2-1.
USA goaltender Jessie Vetter appeared to make the initial stop on Wickenheiser's shot, but replay determined that the puck crossed the line before the whistle was blown. CBSSports.com hockey writer Brian Stubits wasn't convinced:
Stone shared her thoughts on the matter with reporters after the game.
"I did hear a whistle blow before the puck went in,'' said Stone. "But, more importantly, I said to our players, 'Regardless of what happens, let's be ready.'"
Had that goal been called back, the USA's mindset may have been different and the game's outcome could have very well gone in its favor. Instead, it should only fuel the fire for the slight and arguably slighted underdogs.
Cotsonika documented Wickenheiser's mischievous testimony, while ESPN analyst Julie Foudy talked to a fired-up Knight after the game:
In a previous interview with CBSNews.com's Stephen Smith, Knight discussed the loss in the gold-medal game in 2010 and the ferocity this "border war" rivalry brings out:
It wasn't a great feeling and it's still a feeling that haunts a bunch of us today and it's definitely in the back of our minds that we don't want to feel that way again...We're extremely physical teams and you'll get the best game out of both of us when we're playing against each other, hands down. It's heated, your blood boils and you just want to put the other girls through the boards and put the puck in the back of the net and win.
This initial 2014 encounter with Canada was a golden opportunity missed by the U.S. to make a statement. Perhaps the gold-medal game will reflect a different story, as the USA women's hockey players prepare to shine stronger in Sochi—with this loss becoming a formidable driving force.