SOCHI — It was almost there. And then it was gone, like a fleeting dream -- or really, a nightmare. For Team USA, that elusive Olympic gold medal was almost theirs, just 55 seconds away from a well-fought win. And then it was gone. Not just gone, but in the hands of their bitter rivals. The hurt, the shock, the explanations in the aftermath of a 3-2 overtime loss were as empty as the feeling of silver hanging from their necks again. For the U.S. women’s hockey team, almost there just wasn’t enough.
“Fifty-five [minutes] isn’t 60,” U.S. forward Hilary Knight said.
Winning 55 minutes of a game often is enough, but it’s those games where it isn’t that are the most gut-wrenching of all. Giving up a two-goal lead in the last 3:26 of regulation, Team USA had no choice in the end but to accept that sometimes it’s not meant to be. Though so many things pointed to this finally being their time, unlucky bounces and factors beyond their control, they said, tipped the scales out of their favor.
Down a player in overtime, because of a tripping call on Knight, Team USA, which had killed six penalties on Thursday night, didn’t have another one left. A nifty passing sequence eventually ended with the puck on Marie-Philip Poulin’s stick. The 22-year-old forward has before held the fortunes of her team on her blade. Four years ago in Vancouver, she scored both of Team Canada’s goals in their 2-0 gold medal-winning victory. And here, again, she scored a golden goal.
“It was an amazing moment, but I think we all know it was a team effort tonight,” she said. “I’m so happy we got that gold medal back.”
The feeling of winning Olympic gold, the Canadian women said, never gets old. Veteran forward Hayley Wickenheiser, who drew what turned out to be the game-winning penalty, called this victory the hardest and the most satisfying. It also suggests the disappointment across the ice would be that much deeper. After a game like the one they played on Thursday, one that may go down as the best women’s hockey game ever played, there are no easy answers.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Knight says. “You go four years and you’ve got the game in the bag here, and then something happens… It’s unfortunate, but this group has represented our country at an outstanding level, so you can’t really be too heartbroken about it.”
Knight was in the box when the winning goal was scored, put there because the referee called her for cross-checking Wickenheiser on a breakaway.
“I think tripping or cross-checking -- I don’t even know what the call was -- you have to touch the opponent, don’t you?” she said. “I didn’t touch her.”
Wickenheiser, of course, disagrees, saying she would never dive on a breakaway. A replay shows that as Knight gained on the Canadian legend, her foot made contact with Wickenheiser’s foot, causing both to lose their balance and go tumbling.
It was a call that, depending on which side of the 49th parallel you reside, was phantom or obvious. But it was the second questionable penalty called in the overtime -- the other, a slashing call on Jocelyne Lamoureux, was unquestionably poor.
“It would’ve been nice if they just let us play, but you can’t control what calls the ref’s going to make,” U.S. center Kelli Stack said. “I’d rather [they] let us beat the crap out of each other and have no penalties called at all.”
Even Wickenheiser agreed the officiating didn’t live up to standards, though she and her team were the beneficiaries in the end. But ultimately, it was a shame that officiating played even the slightest role in deciding such a wonderful game.
The women’s game hadn’t shined so bright as it did for 60 minutes at the Bolshoy Ice Dome. The U.S.’ two goals were an obvious show of how far the women’s game has come. First was Meghan Duggan’s rocket wrister from the top of the left circle that whizzed by Canada goalie Shannon Szabados’s left ear. Then midway through the third, on the power play, winger Alex Carpenter tapped in a beautiful feed by Knight, who threaded the needle through defenseman Laura Fortino’s legs and right onto the tape. It was the kind of pass only a superstar has the confidence, boldness and skill to make, and Knight has proven to be that in these Games.
But when Canada scored in the 56th minute, when Brianne Jenner drove to the net and her shot ricocheted off American Kacey Bellamy’s knee and past goalie Jessie Vetter, the arena erupted. If it felt like an American crowd before that moment, the goal certainly proved otherwise. The fuel of the crowd began an avalanche of momentum to Canada’s side. And with about 90 seconds left, Stack, near her own blue line cleared a puck out of the zone. Szabados was already on the bench, pulled for the extra attacker, but the puck hit the left post. From more about 100 feet away, it hit the two-inch post.
“That’s how you know that it just wasn’t our night,” Stack said. “The puck literally missed going in by an inch. And so, we just have to tell ourselves that everything happens for a reason. If we were meant to win gold medals, that puck would’ve went into the back of the net.”
That might work as comforting solace for now -- the bounces weren’t there -- but it’s hard on the heart when it comes down to that. In reality, the U.S. players know, there were little things they could have done -- cleared the zone after that last faceoff, for instance. But this isn’t the time to dwell on that either. The message after the game for the U.S. was one of pride.
“It’s not the ending we wanted, but I’m proud of us,” U.S. captain Duggan said. “It doesn’t take away from how much I love this group and what we went through this year. I’m just proud of us.”
But pride won’t change their disappointment. “We train our whole lives to win a gold medal here. It’s the world’s stage,” defenseman Megan Bozek said. “This is what we train for. We didn’t train for a silver. We trained for a gold medal.”
It was almost theirs. And then it was gone.