The teams were the same. The stakes were the same. Even the time zone was the same as four years ago.
But unlike 2018, when America woke up to Olympic women’s hockey gold for the first time in 20 years, the results out of Beijing brought no such joy.
This time, it was Canada’s turn, with a 3-2 decision over Team USA Thursday leaving no real doubt as to which team has the upper hand right now in this long, fierce rivalry.
Oh, there was drama, with the Americans netting a frantic, furious power-play goal with 13.5 seconds to go. But unlike the heroics of four years ago — when a regulation comeback, an overtime standoff, and a shootout win sent the Americans home with their beautiful gold necklaces — that last gasp from veteran Amanda Kessel proved too little too late this time around.
This time, it was Team Canada determined to erase the lingering Olympic disappointment, and they wasted no opportunity to prove it. Having romped to the gold-medal game with an aggressive, relentless, and tough-minded brand of hockey that averaged eight goals a game, the Canadians busted out of the gates as soon as the puck dropped (about 11 p.m. Eastern time). Two goals in the first period, one more in the second, and more than enough depth and defense to hang on to the end.
Played against the strange soundtrack of these closed-loop Games, where fans are scarce amid ongoing COVID restrictions, there were no rising and falling roars of a crowd living and dying with every play. The overnight action in Beijing was marked instead by the clicking sounds of the puck against the sticks, the bruising sounds of bodies against the boards, the slicing sounds of skates against ice.
But once those final seconds ticked down, once Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin won one last faceoff to send the puck deep to the opposite end, once Canadian goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens heard the horn and threw her arms into the air, the sound of Team Canada’s cheers echoed through Beijing’s National Indoor Stadium, just as their jubilant voices singing “Oh, Canada” would later ring to the rafters.
The Americans were left with their silent tears, proud owners of another Olympic silver medal, but no doubt left with the regret of such a slow start, of two powerless power plays (no shots in the game’s first two extra-player advantages), of falling behind too much to dig out another miracle.
There was Team Canada instead, putting puck after puck on net early, with Natalie Spooner finally putting the puck past American goalie Alex Cavallini with 12:45 left in the first period. When a replay challenge by US coach Joel Johnson took the goal off the board for being offsides, it was a break for the US, right?
Not so fast. Or actually, far too fast. Thirty-five seconds later, Canada struck again, and this one held up.
With a set play off a faceoff, Sarah Nurse managed to get open in front of the net, and when she scored, the Canadian bench erupted in celebration.
Then it was the woman all of Canada knows as Captain Clutch, Poulin, who doubled the advantage when she stripped a puck, kept it in the offensive zone, used a screen, and tucked it in the upper left corner of Cavallini’s net. She coasted into the boards, pumping both fists and smiling with such force it radiated through the television screen.
Remembered in these parts as the all-time leading scorer at Boston University, Poulin is the same woman who scored both goals in the Vancouver gold-medal win over the US, who scored game-tying and overtime goals in 2014 in Sochi, who even scored the go-ahead goal Team USA would eventually erase en route to the dramatic gold-medal win in PyeongChang.
But there was no such magic in the air in Beijing, not as Team USA never found its finishing touch, turning in its fourth straight scoreless first period of the tournament. That Poulin would add a second goal with 10:52 to go in the second period cemented any debate over which team was better on this night, gathering up a bouncing feed from Nurse with speed, taking a shot, then redirecting her own rebound off Cavallini’s right pad.
Team USA never quit, notching eight of the last nine shots of the period, determined, as veteran Hilary Knight put it during the second intermission, to “keep buzzin’.” It was Knight’s shorthanded goal that had cut the deficit to 3-1.
Alex Carpenter hit the post 4½ minutes into the third, with the offense finally pressuring the net in ways it hadn’t earlier. But the clock kept ticking, and it was only when Johnson pulled the goalie at 2:35 and Poulin was penalized for a leg check at 1:35 that a six-on-four advantage resulted in Kessel’s desperate goal.
The final, frenzied flurry of activity, with sticks flying and bodies flailing, spoke so much to the intensity and the stakes, but just as much to the level of play. This was a clash of titans that felt inevitable from the moment planes touched down in China, the only logical conclusion for the two nations that have set the worldwide standard for women’s hockey.
Yes, other teams have chipped away, but outside of one world championship final without Canada and one Olympic gold-medal game without the US, these two have been at this for almost three decades now.
“What do you want me to say?” Knight replied to a question about facing Canada once again. “It gets the best and the worst out of both of us at the same time.”
That’s what rivalries do, and in the words of US forward Hayley Scamurra, this “is the best rivalry in sports. You can feel it when you are watching it, and when you are doing it, it is that much more.”
Credit to both for lifting the sport to new heights, for continuing to do that every time they take the ice, for holding on to past disappointment and using it to gain the next edge.
This is what Nurse, the tournament’s leading scorer, said in Beijing when remembering the loss in PyeongChang:
“In all honesty, it was very anticlimactic for us to lose in a shootout, because it didn’t feel as if you lost a game. It almost felt like unfinished business. So going into this gold-medal game, regardless of who we play, we’re here to finish business and win a hockey game.”
They played Team USA, and they took care of their business.
Can’t wait till they do it again.