The scene has become all too familiar and increasingly painful for the U.S. women’s Olympic hockey team: Their bitterest rivals, the Canadians, the thorn in their Olympic side, spilling off the bench and erupting with unbridled joy on the ice after a gold medal-winning goal. And then, those happy players belting out O Canada as their maple leaf flag rises to the arena rafters, with the American flag hanging just below it to the left.
It happened in Salt Lake City. It happened in Vancouver.
And, shockingly, it was the same story Thursday night at the Bolshoy Ice Dome. Canada left U.S. players sobbing yet again after a 3-2 overtime win in which the Canadians pulled off a furious two-goal comeback in the final 3 1/2 minutes of regulation to force extra time.
It was the same Canadian player, forward Marie-Philip Poulin, who crushed the Americans’ dreams this time around. Four years ago in Vancouver, as an 18-year-old rookie, Poulin scored two goals in the span of three minutes to lead Canada to a 2-0 victory. On Thursday, Poulin scored the equalizer with 54.6 seconds remaining in regulation, and then the game-winner on a power-play goal eight minutes into overtime.
“I couldn’t believe it tonight,’’ Poulin said. “It’s the best feeling ever.’’
Canadian coach Kevin Dineen, the former Florida Panthers coach, said of Poulin: “She doesn’t speak a lot but I always kind of catch her eyes, and there’s something in her eyes that spells ‘big-game player’ and obviously she showed that in Vancouver and I think she put a major stamp on that today.”
Another Canadian party on ice. Another rendition of O Canada. The U.S. players, tough as nails during the game, tried to keep their composure afterward. They tried to find satisfaction in a silver medal. But at that moment, it just hurt too much. And so, the tears flowed.
Nobody on the U.S. team could have been as disappointed as former captain Julie Chu, 31, in her fourth Olympics and still seeking her first gold medal. She told reporters this week that she began thinking about Sochi the moment the Canadians started celebrating their win in Vancouver. That memory drove her through every practice and game the past four years.
“We’ve been working really hard for four years for this day, so hopefully people don’t see us as being a little disappointed in the moment or that we don’t appreciate being Olympians and don’t appreciate the silver medals around our necks because we absolutely do,’’ Chu said. “But as competitors, you want to be the best in the world. So, it’s going to take a little time.’’
It was Chu who pulled her teammates together right after the game and gave them a little pep talk.
“The big thing I said is to keep their heads up high,’’ she said. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Be proud of the way we played. Be proud of the team that we are.’’
Team captain Meghan Duggan scored the first U.S. goal in the first period on a wrist shot that found the upper right corner from 25 feet out. She started out OK in her post-game interview. Then, she lost it.
“I’m proud of the fight we put up the whole game,’’ she said. “Proud to wear this jersey win or lose, but it’s not the result we wanted [breaking down]. At that moment they were celebrating, I was thinking about the journey. I just looked at my teammates and everything we’ve been through this year, and all the years before, and you stay proud of your team. You don’t focus on the other team. You just move forward.’’
This time was going to be different, the U.S. women thought, and so did just about everybody else watching Team USA holding a 2-0 lead with 3:30 to go in a high-flying game that lived up to its billing.
But then, in the span of 3 1/2 minutes, everything changed. Canada’s Brianne Jenner’s shot deflected off the leg of U.S. defender Kacey Bellamy and went in. A long-range open-net shot by U.S. center Kelli Stack bounced off the left post. Had it been an inch to the right, the U.S. team surely would have won gold. Alex Carpenter had given the United States a 2-0 lead early in the third on a power-play goal off a cross-ice pass from Hillary Knight.
The overtime was intense and included a pair of questionable calls that surely will be debated in the days to come.
Katey Stone, coach of the U.S. team, had warned her players in the days leading up to Thursday’s game that “this is not for the faint of heart.’’
She wasn’t kidding.
Asked what she told her players in the locker room after, Stone said: “There really isn’t much to say to take away the sting.”