SOCHI, Russia – Slowly it rolled, skipping and sliding down the ice, moving at a glacial pace toward the Canadian goal. The gold medal they had worked so hard to achieve was within their grasp. And this empty net goal would seal the deal, giving the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team its first gold medal since 1998.
As Kelli Stack’s clearing attempt slowly made its way down the ice and toward the inviting Canadian goal, players and coaches for both teams, along with the capacity crowd of 10,639 who packed the Bolshoy Ice Dome, held their collective breaths as the puck rolled over the blue line, made a slight turn to the left and a quick veer to the right before hitting squarely off the far post and harmlessly trickling into the corner.
It’s a vision that will haunt these women for the rest of their lives, along with the fact that they had worked so hard and came so close to achieving their ultimate dream, only to see it snatched away by a fierce Canadian comeback that ended with a 3-2 loss in overtime.
“It will probably stay in my head for a little bit, but I can’t beat myself up over it because there were a number of other plays where we could’ve scored or not let them score,” Stack said.
The difference between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat is that close.
The bitterness was supplemented by a couple of questionable calls by British referee Joy Tottman, including a cross-checking penalty called on Hilary Knight that led to the 4-on-3 power-play goal by Marie-Philip Poulin for the game winner.
“We didn’t play a full 60 minutes and unfortunately when you let other factors come into play the puck can bounce either way and unfortunately it didn’t bounce our way tonight,” said Knight, who was called for the penalty after chasing down Hayley Wickenheiser on a breakaway.
“Regarding the call at the end I didn’t touch her at the end and it’s sort of an unfortunate and heartbreaking call. But there were plenty of other opportunities to put the game away and we didn’t do it.”
The Knight penalty call came shortly after Lamoureux was whistled for a slashing call just six seconds after Tottman whistled Canadian defenseman Catherine Ward for cross-checking Anne Schleper in the head during a scrum near the net.
The combination of the calls left Canada with a 4-on-3 power play, which left too much open ice for a team as skilled as the Canadians.
“When you get to a 4-on-3 at this level you’re pretty much giving the other team a goal,” Knight said.
Similar to any time these two women’s hockey powerhouses face off in an international tournament, this was a back and forth affair that featured a little bit of everything.
Like a couple of heavyweight boxers in the fight of their lives, both teams traded cautious body blows early, but neither team could deliver the knockout blow until Meghan Duggan delivered the first haymaker with a high wrist shot that Szabados never saw at the 11:57 mark of the second period.
It was fast, it was physical and it featured great goaltending from Jessie Vetter and Shannon Szabados, in a rematch of the 2010 gold-medal game.
The U.S. made it 2-0 on a power-play goal from Alex Carpenter, who redirected a beautiful feed from Knight between Szabados’ pads for her fourth goal of the tournament.
“It was awesome to get a two-goal lead, but I always cringe at a two-goal lead just because for some reason we always let them come back,” Stack said.
As the seconds ticked down on the third period, the U.S. continued to hold the upper hand before the pendulum of momentum began to swing. Brianne Jenner gave Canada life when she skated into the zone and had her seemingly harmless wrist shot deflect off a defenders stick and over Vetter’s left shoulder.
That set the stage for a wild finish.
Canada pulled Szabados with 1:35 left, and after Stack’s clearing attempt hit the far post, Poulin broke free in the slot and wristed the equalizer with 55 seconds left in the third period.
“When you’re up 2-0 with five minutes to go it’s a hard lesson to learn now but we have to learn to put those away,” said Jocelyne Lamourex, who was on the ice when Stack’s shot missed the empty net.
“It only comes around once every four years so it’s kind of hard to swallow right now. It was a tough one that’s for sure.”
In the extra frame, the U.S. had plenty of chances to net its second gold medal, but Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados was up to the task, robbing Kacey Bellamy with a miraculous glove save.
Then came the rash of penalties. With both teams playing a man down, the U.S. got caught making a bad change, which left Wickenheiser, who is playing in her fifth Olympics, alone with the puck and nothing but open Olympic ice in front of her. Knight raced to catch her and by the time she was on her, Wickenheiser fell to the ice and Knight was on her way to the box.
That was when Poulin unleashed a wrist shot from the left faceoff dot that Vetter had no chance of stopping.
The victory marked the Canadians fourth straight Olympic gold medal and left the U.S. wondering what they need to do to get over the silver-medal hump. And while head coach Katey Stone was disappointed her team let the gold slip from their grasp, she was proud of all they had accomplished dating back to their National Team camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., more than eight months ago.
“I don’t think the moment was too big. We had the game in hand,” Stone said. “That puck that goes down the ice and hits the post, it could have been over then. So when those types of things happen in the game of hockey you start to wonder if it is your night.”