Team USA vs. Canada: Was That the Unofficial Gold-Medal Hockey Game?

Wednesday's preliminary match was totally thrilling. Just imagine what it'll be like if the two superpowers of the women's game meet again for the top Olympic prize.
Matt Slocum / AP

The post refers to a game set to re-air in the U.S. at 5:30 p.m. Eastern.

Rarely, if ever, does a preliminary-round hockey game rise to the level of an Instant Classic. But Canada's women's team's 3-2 win over the U.S. at the Olympic Games in Sochi did just that. If Wednesday's clash was any indication, we are headed for an unforgettable gold medal showdown between the Americans and Canadians on Feb. 20 that could come down to the officiating style of the referees.

The two teams have met before, playing in several exhibition matches this fall. Though the U.S. won the last four of those matches, Canada is the three-time defending Olympic champion and still the favorite for gold. All those exhibition games gave the teams a chance to explore how their contrasting strengths—the U.S. team's speed and Canada's physicality—would affect the run of play at a meaningful (read: Olympic) matchup.

Led by speedy forward Kendall Coyne, the Americans took the play to Canada early in the first period on Wednesday, looking for quick counter-attacks and on-man rushes (male-specific descriptors such as "defenseman" or "too many men on the ice" are accepted in the women's game, as veteran hockey announcer Doc Emrick pointed out on NBC). But as the period wore on, Canada began smothering the U.S. with hard checks, and the refs allowed the physical play to continue without calling many penalties. The result was a momentum shift in favor of the Canadians, who peppered U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter with tough shots.

Vetter saved everything that came her way in the first two periods, gaining confidence with every save. As the second period progressed, the University of Wisconsin grad began coming farther and farther out of the goal to cut off angles on Canadian shots. Vetter's stellar play turned the momentum back to the Americans, who finally scored on a power play late in the period when dynamic forward Hilary Knight deflected an Anne Schleper shot into the net.

The U.S. team had several other good scoring chances in the second period but failed to extend the lead to 2-0. That would prove a fatal mistake for the Americans, because Canada's physical play would pay off in the third period. Canada had the first 12 shots on goal in the period, scoring twice in 93 seconds to take a 2-1 lead.

The second goal was the key moment of the game and again featured a critical decision by the refs. Vetter blocked a Canadian shot, but the puck trickled through her legs and into the goal. The ref appeared to blow the whistle a split second before the puck crossed the goal line, which should technically result in an immediate stoppage of play (and thus no goal for Canada). U.S. coach Katey Stone was irate.

"I did hear a whistle blow before the puck went in," Stone said after the game.

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Jake Simpson is a New York-based writer.

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