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U.S. and Canada stage epic battle

By Harry Thompson, USA Hockey Magazine, 02/25/10, 9:30AM MST


Julie Chu dove in front of a shot while killing a penalty, allowing the puck to hit her square in the chest. Before she had time to figure out if it hurt, she was back on her feet only to dive in front of another shot.

Erika Lawler, all 5 feet-nothing of her, went battling in the corner against three Canadian defenders, and still managed to come away with the puck.

Kelli Stack twisted and turned through the neutral zone and over the blue line, fighting for even the slightest sliver of open ice to get a shot on goal.
The U.S. Women’s Team left it all on the ice Thursday but came up a little short against a skilled and composed Canadian team that rode two first-period goals from Marie-Philip Poulin and a 28-save effort from goaltender Shannon Szabados to win its third straight Olympic gold medal.

“As I told the players [before the game], make sure you have no excuses, no regrets and no alibis at the end of the night,” said U.S. Head Coach Mark Johnson.

“We can walk out of the arena with our heads held high. It’s a three and a half year process to get here and expectations were very high. I am very proud of my team. I thought they competed for 60 minutes and came up a little bit short.”

The biggest crowd to ever watch a women’s hockey game was treated to perhaps the greatest women’s hockey game of all time. The end-to-end action kept the fans on the edge of the seats as the teams battled for 60 minutes. Every inch of ice was fought for, every shot was contested, every scoring chance earned.

“We had two great teams going head-to-head with a lot of passion and a lot of commitment that we put in along the way. It was guaranteed to be a great game and it was,” Chu said.

“I’m really proud that we played 60 minutes. You can get the mentality of just packing it in and just giving up but we played hard and fought to the buzzer. We can be proud of that.”

The U.S. Women had more than their share of chances but found out the hard way that Szabodos catching glove is where gold-medal hopes go to die.

If they kept an Olympic shot chart, more than half of Szabados saves were snared up high, including a tough save off the stick of Monique Lamoureux in the first period.

“She played well,” Johnson said. “She controlled her rebounds and didn’t give us a lot of second or third opportunities. That’s a credit to her coming into a pressure-filled atmosphere with the weight of her country on her shoulders.”

The U.S. came into the game outscoring its opponents 16-0 in the first period. The only problem was that Canada had also slipped 16 goals past the opposition in the opening frame.

Poulin sent the near capacity crowd of 16,805 into a frenzy when she took a Jennifer Botterill pass and went top shelf over Vetter’s left shoulder. It was only the second goal the Cottage Grove, Wis., native had surrendered all tournament.

Canada made it 2-0 less than three minutes later, as Poulin scored on a set faceoff play in the U.S. zone. She won the draw to Meghan Agosta, who returned the pass to Poulin who slipped a shot under the arm of Vetter.

“The one that they did get they buried it and that was the difference in the game. They got two quick goals and that was that,” said forward Kelli Stack.

The Team USA came into the game leading the tournament with 13 power-play goals. Against Canada they misfired on all six of their chances including two 5-on-3 chances. The Canadians were content to allow the U.S. to move the puck along the perimeter and step into shooting lanes to block shots.

“We need to capitalize on 5-on-3s. We worked on them but things just didn’t go our way,” Stack said. “That would’ve been huge for us.”

So for all intents and purposes, Thursday’s gold-medal clash at the Hockey Canada Place was the rubber match for Olympic supremacy.

The United States beat Canada in the inaugural tournament in 1998, and Canada returned the favor in 2002.  A funny thing happened on the way to the gold-medal game in 2006. Someone forgot to tell Sweden that this was a two-team party and crashed it with a semifinal shootout win that sent the shell shocked Americans to the bronze-medal game.

Even the crowd acknowledged afterward that they witnessed a game between two champions as they joined with U.S. fans in a rousing chant of U-S-A as the medals were handed out.

“It was definitely loud. I think I’m going deaf,” said defenseman Caitlin Cahow. “That’s great to be able to play in front of a crowd like that. Just for our sport. What a long way we’ve come. I was just proud to be a part of a game like that.”

From the time the team was selected, Johnson had equated the Olympic journey to climbing a mountain. The U.S. women scratched and clawed their way to the top but in the end was peak was just too steep to summit. Still, their coach knows how hard it is to win a gold medal, and was proud of their effort tonight.

“It stings when expectations are high to come up a little short. It hurts,” Johnson said.

“A lot of people have put a lot of time and energy into this process. I think we’re a lot better off than we were three and half years ago. Our young players have experienced some success at world championships and now a little stinger here at the Olympics. Hopefully they grow from that.

“They’re walking away with a silver medal. That’s not a bad thing.”