US Women's Hockey Let Gold Slip Away in Gut-Wrenching Loss to Rival Canada

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterFebruary 20, 2014

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All they could do was shake their heads, then shake Canada’s hands.

United States captain Meghan Duggan was choking back tears. Some of her teammates didn’t even bother trying.

The United States women’s hockey team lost to Canada in the gold medal game, again. Canada has won the gold medal, again, for the fourth consecutive Winter Olympics, defeating the Americans for the third time in this unparalleled run.

They are, without question, the two best women’s hockey teams on the planet. In the Olympic finals, Canada proved better in the end.

And that’s what hurts the most about this loss for the Americans­—not just the players, mind you, but all jingoistic supporters of Team USA during the Olympics—Canada was better…in the end.

For more than 56 minutes, the United States was the better team. It was the last three and a half that did them in.

American captain Meghan Duggan drew first blood in the second period to give Team USA a 1-0 lead before Alex Carpenter doubled the lead after netting a power play goal just minutes into the third, giving hope that finally, after all these years in the all those Olympics, Team USA could pull one out against Canada.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

It has been 16 years since the Americans won gold in women’s hockey, defeating Canada in the final game in Nagano. The Canadians have not lost a game in the Olympics since. Not one game.

On Thursday, they came as close as ever.

“We had them at the end, up two goals up under five minutes and they just pressured us hard,” Duggan told NBC’s Pierre McGuire after the game. “A couple of bounces went their way and they tied it up.”

Chalking Canada’s comeback to “a couple of bounces” is the understatement of the year. The first Canadian goal was scored when the puck, which wasn’t even headed on net, took a wicked deflection off American Kacey Bellamy just in front of the crease, popping over the shoulder of netminder Jessie Vetter with 3:26 to go in the game.

With new life in a game it looked destined to lose, Canada kept the pressure on, controlling the puck in the American zone before pulling goaltender Shannon Szabados with 95 seconds to play.

Frankly, Team USA looked nervous in the waning minutes, like they expected the Canadians to tie the game. Despite those anxious moments, good fortune nearly befell the American side when the linesman inadvertently interfered with a Canadian defender trying to keep the puck in the offensive zone, allowing it to squirt free at the blue line and right to the stick of American Kelly Stack. Stack corralled the puck and cleared it the rest of the way down the ice…only to hit the post with 1:25 to play.

A goal there surely would have iced the game, but Canada retrieved the puck and marched back down into the American zone, peppering the goal until Canadian heroine Marie-Philip Poulin slammed home the equalizer with 54.6 seconds to play.

Devastation. Deflation. Disaster.

Team USA somehow managed to survive the remainder of the final minute and actually came out in the overtime with renewed focus. The Americans looked certain to correct the events that occurred late in the third when they were awarded a power play after a Canada crosscheck near their own net. With a 4-on-3 advantage, the Americans had it all right there for the taking.

Six seconds later, Jocelyne Lamoreux was called for a penalty, a weak whistle when she tapped the pads of Szabados after a quick save. It was one of several horrible calls in the overtime period. All of them, sadly, affected the outcome of an otherwise stellar contest.

The teams were forced to play three-on-three, which given the larger ice in Olympic hockey seems like an utterly ridiculous way to decide a gold medal. Decide a gold it did, too, because the United States got caught in a bad line change during the three-on-three, forcing Hilary Knight to pull down Canadian veteran Hayley Wickenheiser on a clear breakaway.

Inexplicably, the referee did not call a penalty shot, but gave Canada another power play—putting a fourth skater back on the ice as, thankfully, international rules don’t let teams skate 3-on-2. Poulin took advantage of the open ice, scoring her second of the game on that power play and recording her second-consecutive Olympic game winner over the United States in the process.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 20: Marie-Philip Poulin #29 of Canada celebrates after scoring the game winning goal in overtime against Jessie Vetter #31 of the United States during the Ice Hockey Women's Gold Medal Game on day 13 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olymp
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It was a disastrous result for the Americans. There is no other way to look at it. To be up two goals on their archrival in the biggest game of their lives and lose the way they did? It’s an unmitigated Olympics disaster.

The players couldn’t even look at their silver medals as the Olympic committee presenters put them around each neck. If there was a gold medal given out for scowls, the Americans would have broken a world record in the process of winning that.

Mcguire asked Duggan what the team talked about on the ice right after the game. The American captain seemed emotional, but remained stoic, putting the loss in perspective.

You hold your heads high. You’re proud of what we did this year. Proud of the game we put forth today. We are proud to be Americans. We’re glad to represent our country. At some point, obviously, we’ll be proud of these silver medals. Right now it hurts a little bit. It was a great hockey game to be a part of.

It was a great hockey game to watch too.

In fact, both the games between the American and Canadian women were not only incredible to watch in terms of the comparative quality to the rest of the women’s hockey tournament in Sochi, but they were two of the most competitive contests in any sport at the Olympics.

All I was left thinking about after the game, other than a few weaker moments where I took shots at the Canadian national anthem on Twitter—I mean, what are they really standing on guard for? Wild moose? Ice people? What!?—was “when’s Game 3?”

Seriously, when is Game 3? I’d watch that in a heartbeat, and by the buzz these two games created during the Olympics, it’s a safe bet others would as well.

These women genuinely do not like each other. This is as good a rivalry as any in American sports right now—maybe, if possible, better than the women’s soccer rivalry with Canada—and it’s something absolutely worth watching again and again.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 20:  Canada and United States shake hands after Canada won3-2 in overtime during the Ice Hockey Women's Gold Medal Game on day 13 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 20, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo
Harry How/Getty Images

Granted, the stakes are only this high every four years. The Americans have actually had the Canadians’ number at the world championships recently, but nobody outside of women’s hockey circles seems to pay any real attention to that tournament. Would it be possible for a women’s hockey rivalry to sustain itself outside of the Olympics?

It would, if it’s handled properly. Forget about creating an American women’s ice hockey league. There’s already professional teams in Canada and there just isn’t a market for women’s ice hockey in multiple cities around America. Besides, there isn’t enough talent to go around.

Pushing the idea of a league is a bad idea. Just look at the problems the WNBA has had, and we win every Olympic gold in basketball. The women’s soccer team has not only been dominant, but they have a lot more international competition than these hockey teams and they’ve constantly struggled with developing a solid American professional league.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 20:  Marie-Philip Poulin #29 of Canada celebrates her goal with teammates against Jessie Vetter #31 of the United States late in the third period during the Ice Hockey Women's Gold Medal Game on day 13 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Oly
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

What organizers from both countries should do is keep the games on an amateur level, but play a seven-game series every year. Either play the games once a week for nearly two months or make it best of nine and play once a month, which gives the rivalry a better chance of carrying on for most of the year.

Hold half the games in American cities and half in Canadian cities and give the last game to whichever country is the current cup holder. Make a badass trophy to give to the winner and promote the heck out of it on television and in each local market to make sure the games are sold out.

Turn the USA-Canada rivalry into a barnstorming tour of North America, playing not only for bragging rights, but for national pride.

Certainly that event will never come close to matching the intensity and significance of this gold medal game. But if we got anything close to what those two teams showed in the game on Thursday, everyone should want to see that more than once every four years.

Still, no matter how many times they do play between now and 2018, the U.S. women will never forget the feeling they had today. The way that game ended, they never should.