The final four women's curling teams left to battle for three coveted podium spots at the 2014 Winter Olympics put on quite the show at the Ice Cube Curling Centre on Thursday in Sochi, Russia.
In the bronze-medal game, Great Britain was able to escape with a victory over Switzerland thanks to some late heroics by one of the sport's top stars. The winning squad secured the country's first medal in the discipline since 2002 and better positioned itself overall in the medal standings.
The battle for the top podium spot between Canada and Sweden proved to be more highly contested than their 9-2 round-robin outcome in favor of the Canadians earlier in the Games, but a late mistake by the Swiss doomed their chances at a gold medal.
With the gold medal, the Canadian women became the first rink to go undefeated at the Olympics.
Bronze-Medal Game: Great Britain 6, Switzerland 5
With one stone left to play, Great Britain's Eve Muirhead came through in a big way to score her country the bronze medal.
The overall framework of the matchup made it quite obvious things would come down to the end. Switzerland jumped out to an early 2-0 lead by the second end thanks to a mistake by Vicki Adams, who failed to clear the circle to finish the end.
Britain finally got on the board in the third end, but Switzerland responded in kind in the fourth to take a 3-1 advantage.
The fifth frame is where things began to swing in Great Britain's favor.
Switzerland's Mirjam Ott left a yellow in the bulls-eye with one shot to go in the fifth end, which Muirhead took advantage of with her final stone to score a deuce and knot things up at 3-3. The clutch performance was a strong bit of foreshadowing by the skip for Britain.
Switzerland managed to take a 4-3 lead in the next frame, but made a critical error in giving the hammer back to Britain. Ollie Williams of the BBC illustrated this mistake best:
Curling, where you can accidentally score points and hate yourself for it. Mistake from Mirjam Ott puts Swiss 4-3 up but hands hammer to GB.— Ollie Williams (@OllieW) February 20, 2014
After a scoreless seventh in which they cleared the circle, Britain used this to its advantage in the eighth to score another deuce to take the lead by a 5-4 margin thanks to another strong final shot from Muirhead.
With seemingly all the momentum in Britain's favor, Ott stepped up in a big way to once again tie things up. As Shelley Alexander of BBC Sport points out, both skips were putting on a fantastic show with everything on the line:
Great shot from Eve Muirhead - what a super sportswoman under huge pressure #lovecurling. But the Swiss respond to tie the match up at 5-5— Shelley Alexander (@ShelleyBBC) February 20, 2014
As is the case in most sports in this scenario with the top two players in stellar form, the skip with the last chance won the game. Ott put down another fantastic shot, but it was Britain with the hammer.
On the final stone of the contest, Muirhead hit on a perfect placement to make it a 6-5 final and a bronze medal.
BRITISH BROOMS BRING HOME BRONZE! Eve Muirhead leads Britain's women to curling bronze. #lovecurling, eh.— Ollie Williams (@OllieW) February 20, 2014
The big win represents Britain's first Olympic curling medal since 2002, and Muirhead was quick to point out its importance after the match, via Lawrence Barretto and Stephan Shemilt of BBC Sport:
Words can't describe it, it hasn't sunk in. It was a great game, we were chasing in the first half of the match and when we stepped in the second half. When you look at our success over the last couple of years, the one medal we were missing was the Olympic medal and we have got that now. I am so happy, we are all pushing each other and it makes it more fun to win something.
Perhaps most impressive is the fact Muirhead led the youngest rink to ever win an Olympic curling medal to the photo finish just a day removed from heartbreak in the semifinal.
For Ott and the Swiss, a disappointing fourth-place finish at two Games in a row is pure heartbreak, but something the rink can build on moving forward.
Gold-Medal Game: Canada 6, Sweden 3
Canada and Sweden lived up to their heavyweight billing in the early goings of their gold-medal matchup.
Undefeated Canada struck first in the opening end after Sweden forced the Canadians to prevent three points for the opening side. The Canadians successfully did so, but gave up the hammer in the process. Sweden quickly used the advantage to tie things up 1-1 at the conclusion of the second end.
The action was close as expected between the two evenly matched rinks, as James Bisson of theScore illustrated in the early goings:
The Canada-Sweden women's curling final has had awesome shots for single points in each of the first two ends. Gonna be a good one.— James Bisson (@james_bisson) February 20, 2014
The trend would continue through the next two ends. Canada grabbed a 3-1 advantage in the fourth thanks to a deuce from skip Jennifer Jones.
Sweden fired right back with two points of its own after, but as Cathal Kelly of The Toronto Sun points out, that output in the fifth end should have been doubled had they shot accurately on their final stone:
Canada in really big trouble. Sweden with last rock. There's four points there to be taken.— cathalkelly (@cathalkelly) February 20, 2014
Sweden can't manage it, but end up with two points. We're tied 3-3 going into sixth end. Canada with hammer.— cathalkelly (@cathalkelly) February 20, 2014
From there, the match became largely uneventful with scoreless frames until the eighth end, where Canada picked up a single point and surrendered the hammer after a close measurement. The Globe and Mail captured the tense moment (yes, the folks in charge gave Canada the yellow rocks and Sweden the red):
With the pressure on, the turning point in the match came in the ninth end as Sweden's Maria Prytz committed a major gaffe and gave two stones to Canada—making it a 6-3 advantage. James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail shared his reaction:
Sweden whiffs on final stone and Canada steals two in ninth end. That's very likely gold right there for @jjonescurl.— James Mirtle (@mirtle) February 20, 2014
The error proved to be the deciding factor in the match as the final end saw no points for either side. For Sweden, the match was a case of missed opportunities and errors that a better opponent was able to capitalize on en route to a higher finish.
At the age of 39 and skip of an Olympic team, Jones led Canada to 11 wins in 11 matches and cemented her Olympic legacy.
Canada was by far the best rink in Sochi, and Jones and her team's resiliency in the face of a tough final act is something that will live on as a highlight of the 2014 Games.