It’s almost cliche to say sports are games of inches, but it truly was in the women’s hockey gold medal game between the United States and Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
With just more than one minute separating the Americans from the Olympic title that has eluded them for 16 years, forward Kelli Stack cleared the puck down the ice, only to watch it clank off the post of an empty net.
Had it found the back of the goal, it would have given the United States a nearly insurmountable 3-1 lead. Instead, the Canadians tied the score seconds later and eventually prevailed in overtime.
Canada had to overcome a 2-0 deficit in the final 3:26 just to get to the extra period, where Marie-Philip Poulin finished the game with a 4-on-3 power-play goal.
U.S. winger Hilary Knight discussed the heartbreak of coming so close to the gold, via Kevin Allen of the USA Today:
When you let other factors come in, it can bounce either way. It's heartbreaking. You go four years and you think you have the game in the bag, but something happens. It's unfortunate. But this group has represented our country at an outstanding level. So I can't be too heartbroken about it.
At least the Americans can take solace in the fact that Ellen DeGeneres has their back:
Sending love and appreciation to the US women’s hockey team. You made us proud. Keep your heads high. #USAvsCanada— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) February 20, 2014
Stack, who nearly put the game away before overtime, was just as shocked as many fans were (via Allen):
We were just so focused on doing our job and not letting what happened happen. And I don't know how it happened. I'm shocked…Leading up to the game, we talked a lot about how we felt this team was different. We were more prepared and focused. We thought a lot about that 1998.
The last time the United States won a women’s hockey gold medal at the Olympics was 1998, with Canada taking it in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014.
While the result was certainly disappointing from an American perspective, it did prove that hockey is the most exciting sport at the Winter Olympics.
The energy in the crowd was unparalleled by anything else we have seen in Sochi, with dueling chants of “Canada, Canada” and “U-S-A, U-S-A” echoing throughout the building.
What’s more, there are no subjective scoring systems in hockey that are difficult to understand, even more difficult to explain, often inspire conspiracy theories and leave audiences at home feeling confused about the outcome.
Throw in the fact that there is no commercial break for entire periods, and Olympic hockey was designed to keep audiences glued to their screens. Spoilers aren’t an issue because the television broadcasts have been live throughout the majority of the Olympics, unlike many of the major events that take place hours before NBC’s prime-time broadcast.
What’s more, we get to do it all over again Friday on the men’s side, as the United States and Canada square off in a semifinal showdown.
There will be star power all over the ice, as players put it all on the line in the middle of a grueling NHL schedule for national pride and the chance to bring home a gold medal to their country.
Who will win the gold in women's hockey in 2018?
Looking ahead in the women’s game, it is clear Canada and the United States have separated themselves from the rest of the field. However, the Canadians appear to have the mental edge necessary to finish the job in the final moments on the biggest stage after capturing the past four gold medals.
The Americans are in desperate need of a different result against Canada.
Heartbreak like this can stick with a team though, which may help fuel the Red, White and Blue on the road to the 2018 Winter Games.
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