The United States was less than four minutes away from its first gold medal in Olympic women's ice hockey since the sport was formally inaugurated in 1998 in Nagano, Japan.
Then it all fell apart in the third period in Sochi in the gold-medal game of the XXII Winter Olympics.
After taking a 2-0 lead early in the third period at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, the Americans held on until Cornell All-America forward Brianne Jenner connected for Canada with less than four minutes remaining in regulation.
Then, Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored both goals in Canada's 2-0 win over the U.S. in Vancouver four years ago for gold, did it again. She tied the game in the last minute on Thursday, and then won it on a power play in overtime.
A two-goal lead is reputed to be the worst one to have in hockey. The 2014 U.S. Women's Olympic Team would probably vouch for that.
Did the U.S play not to lose? It's easy, perhaps even comforting, to back in when you have a two-goal advantage, trying to put everything into defense and not give anything up.
Look at Finland's men's team, though, which had a 3-1 lead after 40 minutes over host Russia on Wednesday and held it. The Finns didn't take unreasonable chances, or make low-percentage long-range passes. They also didn't pass up offensive opportunities when they arose.
Playing philosophy aside, the U.S women just didn't seal the proverbial deal today when they had a lead.
Did the U.S choke? It's a harsh word, but when you have a multi-goal lead, you should protect it, even against an opponent like Canada. Especially a well-known opponent like Canada, whom the U.S faced so many times before in leading up to today's game, including last week's 3-2 round-robin loss where the U.S. also had a 1-0 second-period lead it didn't protect.
Once Canada got on the board in the gold-medal game, it kept coming, even if it only outshot the U.S. by a 10-8 margin in the third period. The most telling shots, though, came in the frantic final minutes of regulation, when the Canadians had nothing to lose and the Americans everything. The U.S. had to weather a red storm, and it didn't.
It's not fair to blame everything solely on the players, even though they're the ones who have to execute. Coaching has to play some role in a demise like the U.S. suffered today, where a lead unravels late. U.S. head coach Katey Stone called timeout in overtime when the U.S. went on a power play. Should she have called one late in regulation, when nerves may have been fraying after Canada's first goal, and her rookie-laden team was perhaps a tad tight? We'll never know now.
Some would say that officiating may have lost the Americans the gold, with British referee Joy Tottman calling two straight penalties on the U.S. in overtime. Jocelyne Lamoureux got tabbed for slashing six seconds into an American power-play advantage and then Hilary Knight—who tallied more than 90 goals in her college career at Wisconsin but notched only two scores in Sochi—was whistled off for upending the ageless Hayley Wickenheiser, who was on a breakaway for Canada. Just 39 seconds later, it was all over.
Whether you thought the calls were deserved or not, it was said years ago that you should just assume the referees are always going to be brutal and you'll never be disappointed. You could actually apply that to any sport, not just hockey. Officiating may play a part in games, but usually it's not the end-all (except perhaps American-Soviet men's basketball in the Munich Olympics 42 years ago).
The U.S. had a chance to close this one out, clanking the post on an empty Canadian net on a Kelli Stack shot that would have iced the contest after goalie Shannon Szabados had been pulled for an extra attacker. A Canadian defender, Catherine Ward, got tied up with an official on the play, but the puck didn't go in—karma against American hockey, after there was so much uproar last week about Russia's go-ahead goal against the American men being disallowed because the U.S. net was off its mooring? If you believe in that stuff.
Regardless of karma, officiating, rookie nerves or other nuances, the U.S. had gold in its grasp this time in Russia, four years after not scoring a goal in the Olympic title tilt in Canada—and let it slip away.
Once again, the U.S. had a chance to beat its biggest rival—had it on the ropes this time, in fact—just four minutes away from the final bell. Once again, for the fourth time in five Olympics, the American women will go home without gold.
And like it has since 2002, the U.S. will again realize that four years from now is a very long time. Much longer than the 18 minutes that separated the American women from their sport's pinnacle this time out.
So close. But just like Salt Lake and Vancouver before—and now Sochi—so short.