SOCHI, Russia — This women’s hockey matchup between the United States and Canada didn’t feel like a preliminary-round game. The cozy confines of Shayba Arena rocked with partisan chants of “U-S-A” and “Ca-na-da.” Maple leafs were hard to miss. And the players appeared particularly intense from the outset.
Then again, any time the two countries meet on the ice, it is never an ordinary affair. During a pair of pre-Olympic exhibition games, brawls broke out.
No one threw any punches Wednesday afternoon, but Canada did hit the US with three goals in the third period. That proved decisive as Canada won, 3-2, in what was likely a preview of the gold-medal game.
The victory extended Canada’s Olympic winning streak to 18. Not surprisingly, the Canadians’ last loss was to the Americans in the gold-medal match at the 1998 Nagano Games.
“There are lots of good rivalries in hockey,” said Canada coach Kevin Dineen. “I’ve been a part of them, being a Whaler playing against the Bruins. I spent a lot of years in New England and I know the Red Sox and the Yankees rivalry.
“This one is the real deal. I think there’s a mutual respect there. Sometimes to be really good, you have to have a foil.”
For the US, Canada has been more than a foil, dominating the red-white-and-blue in Olympic competition. The Canadians have won gold at the last three Winter Games. The Americans’ first and only gold came when the sport made its Olympic debut in 1998.
Entering the Sochi Olympics, it seemed that momentum favored the US. The squad coached by Harvard’s Katey Stone had won its last four meetings with Canada. And while the US built confidence, Canada fell into disarray. With less than two months until the Olympics, Dan Church resigned as coach and Dineen was hired. Dineen had just a short window to change the team’s culture, implement his system, and find a way to beat the US.
Dineen & Co. did exactly that in the first faceoff with the Americans, wresting control of the contest with late scoring and the benefit of the doubt from the officials. As they walked back to the locker room after the game, the US women looked disheartened, and later they talked about the need to learn from their mistakes.
It was the Americans’ first loss of the tournament after easy wins over Finland (3-1) and Switzerland (9-0).
Canada finished atop Group A, while the US advanced to the semifinals as the second-best team in the group. That means the US will face a tougher road to the finals, likely a rematch against Finland in the semifinals.
“We’re not stressing right now,” said US forward Hilary Knight. “We’re not worried.
“I hate losing, but I’m confident in our coaching staff and our leadership that we’re going to get to where we want to be.
“Defense wins games and that’s what we need to do. We need to take care of our defensive zone and create more opportunities offensively and have a little bit of puck luck.”
Knight put the US on the scoreboard first, redirecting a shot from the right point by Anne Schleper into the net at 17:34 of the second period. On a power play, Canada’s Meghan Agosta-Marciano evened the score at 2:21 of the third.
Then some controversy ensued when Canada went ahead, 2-1, on a goal by five-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser. Her shot trickled past US netminder Jessie Vetter, but the Americans thought they heard a whistle before the puck slid past the goal line.
“From where I was standing, I thought I heard the whistle before the puck went in,” said captain Meghan Duggan, of Danvers, Mass. “But obviously, the refs made the final call. You can’t really control the officiating, you just have to play your game.
“They celebrated before the light went on, before the refs made a decision. We didn’t know what went on.”
Vetter said she thought she heard a whistle and that the puck was beneath her the whole time. After a video review, officials determined the goal should stand.
The call changed the game and the lead gave Canada new life.
Agosta-Marciano, who turned 27 Tuesday, added a breakaway goal at 14:55 of the third to make it 3-1.
To their credit, the US women tried to come back. With the goaltender pulled, Schleper scored with 1:05 remaining to make it a one-goal game.
But the Americans ran out of time and will have to wait for a rematch. The gold-medal game is scheduled for Feb. 20. Before then, Stone will have to decide whether to stick with Vetter in goal. The coach said she has not made a decision on the netminder for the next round.
Meanwhile, Canada is rejuvenated and comfortable with its current direction.
When asked what Wednesday’s win will mean if the teams meet again in the gold-medal game, Agosta-Marciano said, “It gives a psychological lift. Our confidence couldn’t be higher.
“The Americans won the last four games against us, but that’s in the past. This is a new tournament. We’ve grown as a team since then.”