By Barbara Barrett McClatchy Foreign Staff
SOCHI, Russia — Had the Olympic women’s hockey game on Wednesday been the gold-medal match, it would have ended in tears for the United States, as it did in Vancouver four years ago.
Instead, players set their jaws afterward and looked ahead to what most likely will be a rematch next week against archrival Canada. The United States fell 3-2 in a game marred by poor communication, missed passes and a controversial goal that the U.S. coach said was no excuse for the loss.
Wednesday’s game was one of the marquis matchups of these Olympic Games, and Shayba Arena, capacity 7,000, was nearly packed. The Canadians were rowdier, with their cowbells and horns and giant flags. But plenty of Americans fans were there too, chanting “U-S-A.”
The two teams are the world’s best and are bitter antagonists on the ice, so much so that two of their recent meetings have featured full-fledged fights, a rarity in women’s hockey.
The game didn’t disappoint. It was lightning quick and full of hits—speedier and rougher than either team’s earlier matches against third and fourth seeds Finland and Switzerland, proving how domineering USA and Canada are in women’s hockey.
U.S. forward Hilary Knight scored the first goal of the game deep into the second period, tipping in a strike from defenseman Anne Schleper.
But the real excitement came in the third period, when Canada came out of the locker room with vigor and, in less than two minutes, tied the game on a back-door power play goal by Meghan Agosta against U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter. The assist came off a short cross from forward Hayley Wickenheiser.
Less than a minute later, the pair scored again, this time Agosta sweeping the puck to Wickenheiser, who rattled it through Vetter. It slid under the goalie and into the net — possibly after a blown whistle to stop play.
“I thought I had the rebound under me the whole time,” Vetter said afterward. “I thought I heard a whistle.”
U.S. players argued the call and the goal was reviewed, but it stayed, giving Canada the lead.
“We thought we heard a whistle before the puck went in the net. They celebrated before the light went on,” said USA team captain Meghan Duggan after the game.
Agosta disagreed. “That puck was in before the whistle went. It was a great goal by Hayley, something that we needed.”
And U.S. Coach Katey Stone — though she said she definitely heard the whistle — pointed out that her team had plenty of time left in the game. “I’m not going to hang my hat on that.”
Agosta scored again in the 55th minute, gathering a loose puck in the Canadian zone and carrying it halfway up the ice for a one-on-one breakaway against U.S. goalie Jessica Vetter. She pushed right, shot left and the puck sailed between Vetter’s legs.
“I just reacted a little slow,” Vetter said. “And that’s just the way breakaways go.”
But there was more to it. The United States went nearly 15 minutes without a shot on goal, managing just three in the third period. They continued a pattern that evolved in the second period as passes sometimes sailed wide or never found receptive sticks. On a few occasions players appeared confused and almost collided. Canada appeared to rein in more free pucks.
“We got thoroughly outplayed in 10 minutes of the second period, and then we got our stuff together in the third,” said Canadian coach Kevin Dineen.
At two minutes left in the game, Team USA pulled Vetter from the net for a sixth skater and Schleper scored, renewing hopes for the team and their fans. The United States called a timeout to reboot, reinserted Vetter and had the good luck to get a power play when Canada was caught with too many players on the ice.
But it wasn’t enough. Canadian goalie Charline Labonte saved a last shot and the game was over.
“I feel a little indifferent about how our team played today,” Stone said afterward. She said she wants to work on communication, making sure players are ready for passes and working harder to force turnovers.
“We’d like to shoot a little bit more, test them into their defense,” she said. “They were pretty stifling.”
Under the Olympic format, Canada and the United States already have earned a bye into the semifinals on Monday. That gives their players four days to enjoy the palms and warm weather of Sochi – but they won’t be vacationing.
“Coming away with the loss might be an extra motivation for us to keep working hard,” Duggan said.
Dineen, the Canadian coach, called Wednesday’s game “exactly what you’d expect, a see-saw back and forth, certainly in momentum.”
“It was a typical U.S.-Canada game,” he said.
If Canada and the United States get through the semis unscathed, they’ll reconvene next on Feb. 20.