SOCHI, Russia — Shocking. Heartbreaking. Like a dream.
That was how US forward Kelli Stack described blowing a two-goal lead late in the third period of the gold-medal game, then losing to rival Canada, 3-2, in overtime. But she really didn’t need to put it in words. It was evident almost from the moment Canadian forward Marie-Philip Poulin put away the game-winner on a 4-on-3 power play at the Bolshoy Ice Dome on Thursday. It was a teary-eyed, funereal looking Team USA that collected silver medals after the game.
“We wanted to win a gold medal,” said veteran forward Julie Chu. “We’ve been working for that for four years. Hopefully, when people see us disappointed in the moment, they don’t see that as we don’t appreciate being Olympians, that we don’t appreciate our silver medals around our neck, because we absolutely do. But as competitors, you want to be the best in the world.”
Many of the US players wanted to win gold for four-time Olympian Chu. Instead, she adds another silver to her collection of two silvers and a bronze.
The Canadians have claimed gold in the last four Winter Games, dominating the tournament ever since they missed the top step on the podium in 1998. That was the first and only time the US earned gold. But in Sochi, the US players were convinced they had a special team, a team reminiscent of the 1998 squad.
“Leading up to this game, we talked about how this time it felt like our team was different,” said Stack, a standout for Boston College. “I think we were more prepared, more focused. We thought a lot about the ’98 team and not having won gold since then, and we wanted to be the team to bring the gold medal back. I had no doubt we were going to win.”
Late in the third period, with the US ahead, 2-0, Stack had reason for that kind of confidence.
Then, with 3:26 left in the period, forward Brianne Jenner sent the puck past US goalie Jessie Vetter (28 saves) and Canada pulled to 2-1. And the intensity inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome ramped up several notches.
Canada pulled goalie Shannon Szabados (27 saves, with several sparklers early in OT) with 1:35 left. Moments later, Stack sent a clearing shot into the Canada end and it hit the left post. At the time, Stack thought, “Oh, that would have been nice if that went in, an inch to the right.” After the game, Stack acknowledged the missed empty net “will probably stay in my head a little bit.” That’s because Poulin tied the score with 54.6 seconds left.
When asked what the players talked about before the start of overtime, US forward Hilary Knight said, “We’ve got our pride. We’ve worked so hard. Remember every single leg squat that we’ve done, every single shuttle that we’ve done, all the hard work that we’ve put into this. Remember that. When you think that you’re not giving your all, give a little bit more.”
For the last six months, that hard work took place in Greater Boston. Team USA practiced at the Edge Sports Center in Bedford and worked out at Mike Boyle’s strength and conditioning gym in Woburn. Nearly half of the players lived with host families in the Concord area as they prepared for the Olympics.
In overtime, penalties — slashing on Jocelyne Lamoureux, a debatable cross-checking call against Knight — left the US outnumbered. Poulin took advantage on the power play and put the puck past Vetter 8:10 into the extra period. For the US players who lost in Vancouver, it was déjà vu. Poulin, who plays for Boston University, scored both goals in her country’s 2-0 Olympic triumph in 2010.
“Great hockey games come down to inches, bounces of the puck,” said US coach Katey Stone. “That’s hockey. If you’re involved in competitive athletics at a high level, you know what you’re getting into. It’s high risk, high reward.”
Maybe better than anyone else, the Canadians understand what the Americans invested and sacrificed to reach the gold-medal game. Unlike NHL players, the women will not return home to lucrative professional careers. There is no bigger hockey prize for women than a gold medal.
“For sure, we feel for [the US players],” said Canadian defenseman Catherine Ward. “I think a lot of girls know them pretty well. You feel bad, but I’m happy still.”
The victory marked Canada’s 20th straight win in the Winter Games, but that doesn’t diminish the intensity of the US-Canada rivalry. If anything, the intensity of the gold-medal game showcased how entertaining women’s hockey can be at the highest level. At least, that’s what the players and coaches hope.
“I hope everyone loves [the women’s game],” Knight said. “I’ve gotten messages from around the world, especially from the United States, saying ‘Oh, my gosh, good luck tonight.’ We really helped put women’s hockey on the map. I hope it continues. It’s a great game. It’s sort of this hidden gem that people are suddenly finding.”
Perhaps the smallest of victories after the biggest of losses.