No matter which side you're on, USA-Canada final as good as it gets
The game was fast, it had scoring chances, great goaltending and physical play. It had two bitter rivals playing for gold. It had heartbreak and drama. Simply, the USA-Canada women's hockey final was as good as it gets.
Forget the qualifiers. Don't bring up the fact that it was a women's game. Just call the gold-medal final in Sochi between the USA and Canada on Thursday exactly what it was: one of the best hockey games you'll ever see.
As heartbreaking as the defeat was for the United States -- settling for silver after leading by two goals with less than four minutes to go -- as dominant as Canada has been over the past 12 years at the Olympics, not losing a game, that was as good as it gets. For any hockey game. There was nothing missing.
From the opening faceoff, the action was fast and furious. If you watched the Nagano Olympics in 1998 when women's hockey debuted, you would hardly believe you were watching the same product. Both the Americans and the Canadians were passing well, forechecking well, getting quality scoring chances and equally quality goaltending. It was even physical, some of which was being let go, though there were five penalties called in the first. After it was said and done there was still no goal.
Arguably, it was the best goalless period you'll ever see, it was that entertaining.
It would continue that way all the way through the end when the USA was trying so desperately to hold onto its lead. The emotional swings of the game were vicious enough to make one sick just watching from home, never mind the thrill ride that the players must have been on.
Things got really serious when Canada was able to find a way inside the American defense, which had been so tight and was doing such a good job of keeping play to the outside, to bring the game to 2-1. As great as the game had been at that point, it was only getting started.
The closing minutes would produce more drama than a telenovela.
Canada was left with little option but to pull goaltender Shannon Svabados -- who was simply outstanding in this game -- and it nearly cost them right away with maybe the most dramatic seconds of the game. That's saying something.
When the linesman got in the way of the Canadian defense, the US took a swing at the puck at its own blue line to clear it out of the zone. It then went the length of the ice and looked to be headed into the net only to hit the post square on and die right there. Hockey being a game of inches was never more cruel, or rewarding, depending on your perspective.
The Canadians got the second breakthrough they needed to put the game into overtime with less than a minute to play. For the second straight time in an Olympic hockey game featuring the USA and Canada, we would have a golden goal, the ultimate suspense in sports.
Unfortunately that's the point that officiating got in the way and made itself known. Just five seconds after the US earned a power play, a shot on Svabados was saved and Jocelyn Lamoureux was called for slashing. Even Canadians couldn't believe it for it was perhaps the softest call you will ever see, especially in the circumstances. It was almost as if the referees didn't want to be the deciding factor in the game but in the process did become just that.
With the ensuing 3-on-3, Canada was able to take advantage of a crashing USA defense and a flubbed pass to spring on a breakaway. Again, drama. Canadian star Hayley Wickenheiser appeared to be all alone on goal when Hilary Knight caught up and the two got their feet a little tangled. A penalty was called, one that Knight did not agree with.
Hilary Knight says the penalty on her in overtime was a "bogus call." She claims not to have touched Hayley Wickenheiser.— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) February 20, 2014
Again, back to that drama. If it was a penalty, it had to be a penalty shot, right? Wrong. Knight was instead given a two-minute minor and considering you can't have 3-on-2 hockey, Canada was given an extra skater to go 4-on-3. Moments later, Marie-Philip Poulin was putting home the winner to become Canada's new golden girl.
Arguments about the officiating will undoubtedly be a talking point but the fact remains that the USA had a two-goal lead with less than four minutes left and Canada came back to force overtime. That as much as anything is where the game got away from the USA. That doesn't dismiss or absolve some awfully shady calls but it must absolutely be part of the conversation.
Earlier this week the old conversation about women's hockey being deserving of a spot in the Olympics popped up because once again the Canadians and Americans were dominating the competition. Right on cue, the two provided as spectacular a hockey game as one will see. That followed a thrilling bronze-medal match in which the Swiss completed a two-goal, third-period comeback to defeat Sweden. It was a banner day for the women's game.
Undoubtedly this one will sting for the Americans. Gold is the goal and for a fourth straight Games they didn't get it despite being able to taste the shiny medal in their mouths in the final minutes.
Canada won the game and while it's too cliché to say that we all won by getting to watch it, it's only fair to call the game what it was -- one of the best hockey games you'll ever see and completely befitting a gold-medal game at the Olympics.
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