The look of disappointment can wear many masks.
It can show as shock and disbelief after watching a two-goal lead evaporate in the final 3:26 of the gold-medal game.
Or as a feeling of exasperation after coming a half an inch away from icing the game with a potential clinching goal that hits the post rather than curling into the Canadian empty net.
Or reveal itself in the pained expression that comes with the realization that the dream that you worked so hard to achieve was within your grasp and was snatched away in the blink of an eye.
Losing is never easy, but the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team’s 3-2 overtime loss in the gold-medal game was as gut-wrenching a defeat as any of them have ever experienced. And that includes head coach Katey Stone, who took a hiatus from her 18-year coaching post at Harvard University to prepare this group of 21 women for just such a moment on the biggest stage in their sport.
“They’re all different. My other team played for three national championships in a row. Those [losses] were hard, too,” said Stone who made history as the first woman to coach a U.S. Olympic Team.
“This is very difficult because of the people who have been around this program, and the commitment and dedication of all of these athletes. There really isn’t much to say. You can’t take the sting away.”
There’s a fine line between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. For the U.S. that line was crossed with 55 seconds to go as they clung to a 2-1 lead. Then, suddenly, the lead was gone in the whisk of Marie-Philip Poulin’s stick.
Seconds earlier, Kelli Stack had a golden opportunity to put the game out of reach when she outraced Canadian defenseman Catherine Ward and chipped the puck down the ice and toward the goal vacated by Shannon Szabados. The puck took a slight turn at the last second and hit the post straight on.
In a game that was by all accounts a battle of wills, Stack could not will the puck a half an inch to the right.
“I was thinking ‘oh, that would be nice if that had gone in,” said Stack, whose poise afterward yielded hundreds of marriage proposals on Twitter. “We were still up a goal so I was thinking, ‘it’s not that big of a deal. Then after they tied it up, that was the worst feeling in the world.”
While it will take time for the pain to slowly fade, the silver lining, if there is one, comes from knowing that women’s hockey was once again on the world stage and put on one heck of a show.
“Everyone played their heart out,
The NBC broadcast that aired in the early morning hours back home averaged 4.9 million viewers, making it the most-watched hockey game in the U.S., excluding Stanley Cup Finals, since the men’s gold-medal game in 2010. The stream of the game on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app was watched by 1.2 million unique users.
“We really helped put women’s hockey on the map, and I just hope it continues,” said Hilary Knight, whose penalty in overtime set up a 4-on-3 power play that led to the golden goal. “It’s a great game and a hidden gem that people are suddenly finding so it’s good.”
It was only four years ago that IOC president Jacques Rogge threw down the gauntlet on women’s hockey to become more competitive. While many supporters viewed Rogge at the time like the school bully looking to take away the girls' lunch money, in reality he was issuing the challenge for other federations to follow the lead of USA Hockey and Hockey Canada to invest more resources in their women’s programs.
The International Ice Hockey Federation took that challenge to heart and invested resources to help other countries to improve, but it will take time and an attitude adjustment when it comes to supporting the women’s game.
But as these countries continue to take baby steps in their game, the U.S. and Canada make giant strides in their off-ice nutrition, strength and conditioning programs and the high-level coaching they receive every day.
“We should talk less about what if the gap is getting bigger and more on how we are going to keep closing the gap, in my opinion,” said Stone, who champions the recruitment of more European players into the U.S. collegiate system.
“It’s about focusing on the positive, and I think these women are knocking themselves out to put out the best possible product that they can for our sport. It’s only going to get better if people continue to stay positive.”
One positive was that there weren’t the lopsided losses like in past Olympics. Much of that can be attributed to better goaltending and a reshuffling of the deck in the preliminary round. Fledgling teams like Japan and Germany no longer have to endure double-digit losses to the North American powerhouses. Most games in the tournament were competitive and many were entertaining to watch.
But compared to the two games played by the U.S. and Canada on the big ice, other games looked like they were played on pudding. It’s a different game played at a different speed with a different class of player, as evidenced in the U.S. squad’s 6-1 semifinal win in which they put 70 shots on goaltenders Valentina Wallner and Kim Martin Hasson. Talk about shooting Swedish fish in a barrel.
“It’s not the U.S. and Canada’s fault that they are good,” said Swedish head coach Niclas Hogberg. “I think they should go on so that we have something to look up to as we try to improve our game.”
After losing to Canada, 2-0, in the gold-medal game in Vancouver, the U.S. brain trust embarked on a three-year plan to create a winning formula. No detail was overlooked and no resource was spared. The end result was a team that was ready to take the next step on the Olympic stage.
Now it will be another four years before they get another shot in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Both the U.S. and Canada are likely to undergo facelifts as trailblazing players exit their respective programs and the next wave of highly skilled players take their place.
Just as the lessons learned in Vancouver made this a better team, the painful reminders of the gold medal that slipped through their grasp here in Sochi will fuel the competitive fire to burn even hotter four years down the road.
“Everyone played their heart out, and that’s all you can expect from your teammates at the end of the day,” Knight said. “To look down [the bench] to the right and to the left and know that you can rely on one another is a pretty special feeling. It’s just been an incredible journey and I’m fortunate to have been a part of it.”
But the team that was built with one goal in mind once again found itself watching the Canadians celebrate at center ice. The look of heartbreak and disappointment was hard to mask. It will take some time but someday they can look back and know that they still accomplished something pretty special.
“Hopefully people don’t see us as being disappointed in the moment, that we don’t appreciate being Olympians and don’t appreciate the silver medals around our necks because we absolutely do,” said Julie Chu, who was bestowed with the honor of carrying the Stars & Stripes in the closing ceremony.
“As competitors you want to be the best in the world. There’s nothing to be ashamed of today. Be proud of the way we played and be proud of the team we are.
“But I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it’s tough. I wanted a different result. We wanted a different result.”
Women's Game-by-Game Recap
USA 3, Finland 1
Feb. 8, 2014
At Shayba Arena
Determined to avenge a stinging loss at the Four Nations Cup, the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team extracted a measure of revenge in the opening game of the Olympic tournament with a dominating 3-1 victory over Finland.
The U.S. employed a stifling defense to hold the Finns to eight shots against Jessie Vetter, who was seldom tested but came up with the saves when called upon.
With Noora Raty’s 58-save performance in Lake Placid still fresh in their minds, the U.S. knew they needed to get to her early. Hilary Knight picked off an errant pass and beat Raty on the stick side to give the Americans a 1-0 lead just 53 seconds into the game.
“Whenever you can get a goal, especially in the first minute, it kind of deflates the other team,” Knight said of scoring the fastest goal in women's Olympic history.
Alex Carpenter scored her first Olympic goal, and Kelli Stack added a goal to round out the U.S. scoring.
USA 9, Switzerland 0
Feb. 10, 2014
At Shayba Arena
Facing just 10 shots, many taken from as far away as Geneva, Molly Schaus led a solitary existence in goal as the U.S. routed Switzerland, 9-0.
The Lamoureux sisters teamed up for a pair of goals, both by Monique, and Amanda Kessel added a pair of first-period tallies as the U.S. jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the opening frame.
Kendall Coyne also scored a pair of third-period goals, and Brianna Decker added her first of the tournament.
Without a 44-save effort from former Northeastern University goaltender Florence Schelling, the final outcome would have been much worse.
“I’ve been seeing that all year long,” Schaus said of her teammates’ offensive onslaught of Schelling, who was named the tournament MVP.
“It’s no big surprise knowing what they can do up there. Our forwards are so skilled that if you give them an opportunity they can put up goals quickly.”
Canada 3, USA 2
Feb. 12, 2014
At Shayba Arena
The U.S. had beaten the Canadians the last four times they met leading up to Sochi. But these are the Olympics, a tournament where the Canadians have not lost since the gold-medal game in 1998.
Three third-period goals, including one that appeared to go in after the whistle, helped the Canadians rally in what was a typical hard-fought game.
Despite playing more on their heels than on their toes, the U.S. drew first blood on Hilary Knight’s power-play goal in the second period.
The Canadians stormed back on a pair of goals from Megan Agosta, and another from Hayley Wickenheiser.
Anne Schleper’s goal with an extra attacker drew the Americans within a goal, but it was too little, too late.
The loss left the U.S. second in their pool, and led them to three days of intense film study and practices to clean up a few things before the semifinals.
“We can definitely tweak a few things and do a little bit better, but overall I thought we played a good game and came up a little bit short,” Jessie Vetter said after her 28-save performance.
USA 6, Sweden 1
Feb. 17, 2014
At Shayba Arena
Eight years after suffering the most shocking defeat in the short history of women’s Olympic hockey, the U.S. Women’s Team was not ready to see the past repeat itself as they pounded by Sweden, 6-1, to punch their ticket to the gold-medal game.
The U.S. used its speed to throw a blanket over the Swedish defenders, pressuring the puck to create turnovers that led to great scoring chances. The U.S. out shot Sweden 70-9, their highest shot total since peppering China with 71 shots in 2002.
Six different players scored for the U.S., including Alex Carpenter, who led the U.S. with 4 goals in
If not for the stellar play of Swedish goaltenders Valentina Wallner, who was pulled after surrendering her fifth goal on 47 shots, and Kim Martin Hasson, the final score could have been much worse.
“We were the kind of team we’re used to seeing, aggressive, going forward and not backing up, moving the puck very well,” said head coach Katey Stone. “We’re building here and hopefully the best is yet to come.”
Canada 3, USA 2, OT
Feb. 20, 2014
At Bolshoy Ice Dome
In what may be the most stinging loss in the history of this storied rivalry, the U.S. saw a two-goal lead evaporate in the final 3:26 as the Canadians waged a fierce comeback to tie the game in the final minute and then win it in overtime.
Marie-Philip Poulin, the hero of the gold-medal game in 2010, once again led the way for Canada with a pair of goals, including the game winner during a 4-on-3 power play in overtime.
The U.S. jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Meghan Duggan and Alex Carpenter, and the gold medal they had worked so hard to achieve was within their grasp.
The Canadians kept pushing and finally broke Jessie Vetter’s shutout streak with a goal from Brianne Jenner that deflected off of Kacey Bellamy’s knee.
As the Canadians continued to storm the U.S. zone after pulling their goaltender Shannon Szabados, Kelli Stack’s long clearing attempt hit the post.
Given a new life, the Canadians kept up the pressure until Poulin’s wrist shot tied the game with 55 seconds left.
The U.S. controlled the better of the play early in overtime with Szabados robbing Bellamy from in close. A string of penalties put the U.S. in a hole and Poulin made them pay.
“When you’re up 2-0 with five minutes to go it’s a hard lesson to learn now but we have to learn to put those away,” said Jocelyne Lamourex. “It only comes around once every four years so it’s kind of hard to swallow right now.”
The victory marked the Canadians fourth straight Olympic gold medal and left the U.S. wondering what they need to do to get over the silver-medal hump.
“I don’t think the moment was too big. We had the game in hand,” Stone said. “That puck that goes down the ice and hits the post, it could have been over then. So when those types of things happen in the game of hockey you start to wonder if it is your night.”