SOCHI -- Team Canada would be celebrating whether they had beaten the U.S. or not. It was winger Meghan Agosta-Marciano’s birthday on Wednesday, so the team had planned to do something special.
Of course, anything they did would be better after a win. So, why not? Agosta-Marciano made it so. With two goals and an assist, the 27-year-old forward helped Canada take down the Team USA 3-2 in one of the most anticipated games of the women’s hockey tournament.
The intimate Shaybu Arena was mostly filled for the first meeting between the tourney's top two teams. Canadian and American flags hung from the railings, and pockets of fans cheered loudly. The glass-side seating reserved for “Athletes of Other Sports” was completely full, forcing members from the American and Canadian men’s hockey teams to find observation seats in the upper level.
Through a tight first period, the teams exchanged quality scoring chances, whether it was Canada’s Natalie Spooner with a shot in close or American Kelli Stack shorthanded. It wasn’t long before it was evident that the game would be another competitive battle.
After playing fairly even with the Canadians through the first half of the game, the U.S. made a surge late in the second period, breaking through with a power play goal from Hilary Knight, who tipped a hard shot in the slot through Canadian goalie Charline Labonte.
The goal, Knight’s third of the tournament, put Team Canada in historically unfamiliar territory. Since women began playing ice hockey in the Olympics, Canada had lost just one game, to the U.S. in the inaugural gold medal game in 1998. Since then, the Canadians had not trailed in more than 1,057 minutes of Olympic play -- that is, until Knight’s deflection at 17:34 in the second period.
Canada may not know Olympic disappointment very well, but it may have, in some ways, grown accustomed to losing in recent months. Coming into Sochi, Team Canada had dropped four straight games to the U.S. in pre-Olympic exhibitions, while undergoing turmoil from within.
The Canadians were losing while trying to familiarize themselves with a new coach. In December, Kevin Dineen, a former NHL coach with minimal experience in the women’s game, was brought in to replace Dan Church, who was seemingly forced to resign for undisclosed reasons. Dineen helped recharge the team, putting them through grueling workouts last month, but the efforts had not yet paid off on the ice.
Early in the third period, there were some signs that suggested they would. Canada scored on a power play when Hayley Wickenheiser slid the puck through an open seam in the slot to Agosta-Marciano, who was waiting backdoor.
The 35-year-old Wickenheiser, in her fifth Olympics, has not lost a step even though she is now facing players who were born the year she made her first national team (1994). Just 93 seconds later, Wickenheiser put Team Canada up when she broke in on U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter and scored.
“She’s got a pretty good resume,” Dineen said after the game. “It’s an easy way to rely on Haley. That line has been a good group for us. They’re tight off the ice. They’re a good line on the ice. They certainly have some chemistry.”
Indeed, with the same line of Agosta, Wickenheiser and Natalie Spooner on the ice about 11 minutes later, Team Canada put the game out of reach. Despite a goal from U.S. defenseman Anne Schleper with just 1:05 remaining, the women in red held on to win their first game against their southern neighbors since Nov. 6.
While Canada got stronger as the game went on, sustaining offensive zone time in a game that was largely end-to-end, the Americans seemed to shrink, particularly in the third, when they were outshot 12-3.
“We made some mistakes, and we could play better in front of [Vetter],” American coach Katey Stone said. “Our defensive support in our own end was not what it has typically been for the last two months. And we have to establish our forecheck and shoot a little more.”
Both teams will have four days to work on their games before heading to the semifinal next Monday. The U.S. will take on the winner of one quarterfinal, while Canada will play the winner of the other; those classification games will be settled after group play finishes on Thursday.
If both the U.S. and Canada advance, as they have in all but one Olympic Games, another quick, skilled and entertaining 60 minutes, much like the one at Shaybu on Wednesday, should be expected in the gold medal match. And another chapter will be written in this long and storied rivalry.
“It was exactly what we expected, a one-goal game that see-sawed back and forth and saw momentum change direction,” Dineen said. “It was a typical U.S.-Canada hockey game.”