After stepping in behind the bench of the women's national team, Canada has experienced a four-game losing streak against its North American nemesis. All that changed Wednesday morning with a spectacular 3-2 win.
It's a shame that the game was played so early in the morning because it's hard to imagine that we'll see a more entertaining hockey game in the 2014 Olympics. After vigilantly calling bodychecks during Canada's first two games in Sochi, the refs gave their whistles a breather today, allowing the North American rivals to play a physical contest. Both teams forechecked ferociously in a grudge match with as much intensity and animosity as any NHL rivalry. Indeed, aside from the ponytails, there was little difference between this preliminary match and an NHL playoff.
If Canada and the USA meet again in the tournament with a medal on the line, the bellicose play will make the Stanley Cup Final look like a strawberry social in comparison.
While the victory was sweet, the manner of winning it was precarious. Canada relied on another three-goal third period after going scoreless in the first 40 minutes of the match. In Monday's game against Finland, Canada similarly failed to score in the first 40 minutes before finally netting three in the third period. These late-game rallies are thrilling for fans, but the team needs to find some offence early or else the opposition will find a way to neutralize Canada for the final 20 minutes.
After a scoreless first period, Team USA got on the board first when Hilary Knight, Team USA's nefarious killjoy, tipped a point shot past Charlene Laponté on the powerplay. If you're unfamiliar with Knight, she's known for scoring pivotal goals and crushing the hopes and dreams of Canadians fans.
Pictured: Knight (pictured here next to Jessie Vetter following a 5-1 victory over Team Canada) is also known for treating passengers as ottomans and flagrantly obstructing emergency exits. Yep, she's evil like that. (source)
Luckily for Team Canada, the Olympics bring out the best in Hayley Wickenheiser, who not only notched a goal and an assist today but also spoiled the game for Team USA's go-to spoiler. Aside from the tip-in goal, Wickenheiser et al. did an excellent job limiting Knight's presence on the score sheet.
Both goalies were also standouts today, forcing both teams to rely on powerplays for the first two goals of the game. Jessie Vetter entrenched herself as she withstood waves of Canadian offence. Vetter might have stolen the game had her teammates not assisted on Canada's two even-strength goals.
After an initial shot from Wickenheiser was blocked, Alex Carpenter slipped the rebound through a sprawling Vetter and into the net. Carpenter would have been thrilled with her effort if she didn't play on Vetter's team. While trying to tuck the puck under her goaltender, Carpenter unintentionally scored an own-goal that would be credited to Wickenheiser.
The 2-1 goal caused a heated dispute on the ice and behind the American bench as Team USA clamoured for the goal to be disallowed as the puck may have crossed the goal line after the whistle had been blown. With the way Vetter had been playing, it seemed inevitable that the only even-strength goal against Team USA would cause controversy. When the referee upheld the goal, the Americans did everything but dump tea onto the ice in protest.
Following the game, Knight vented her frustration by claiming that she and her teammates heard the whistle and stopped playing just before the puck crossed the line. Even if that was the case, Knight should probably ut the controversial goal was not the game winner, so Knight might have offered an account of the game that didn't suggest that the team quit as soon as a call went in their disfavour.
The game-winning-goal was similarly assisted by sloppy play on the part of Team USA. After offering Canada a number of tantalizing giveaways, Meaghan Agosta beat Vetter on a breakaway on her second breakaway of the game. The two-goal game was a fitting way for Agosta to celebrate her 27th birthday today--especially since she had previously celebrated turning 19 by scoring a hat trick in the 2006 Olympics. Apparently birthdays bring out the best in Agosta.
Luckily for the opposition, the ratio of birthdays to unbirthdays for Agosta this year is 1: 364.
The Americans similarly capitalized on deficiencies in Team Canada's play when they narrowed Canada's lead with just over a minute left in the third period. Psychiatrists can thank the Americans for the 3-2 tally as the mere prospect of playing OT against the Americans in the Olympics brings back traumatic memories of 2010 for Canadians fans.
The last-minute goal was the product of failing to protect the crease sufficiently. After allowing American skaters to crash the net, Laponté found herself spun around in the crease. Anne Schleper quickly fired the puck into the net before Laponté could get back into position.
These sorts of mistakes, however, are not signs that either team is inherently flawed. Rather, they are both so evenly matched and tenaciously skilled that the game became a zero-sum war in which one team's every mistake benefited the opposition.