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.

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.

The officials didn't see—or hear—it that way. They declined to take the goal off the board, and Canada had a lead it would not relinquish.

The rest of the game played out as could have been predicted: U.S. team presses, Canada gets a goal on the counter-attack to build a comfortable 3-1 lead, Canada wins. The U.S. fought back with a late goal to make it 3-2 and nearly tied it in a frantic final 30 seconds. The players were battling for the puck in front of Canada's goal as the buzzer sounded.

In effect, the game was decided by how tightly the refs officiated it. If they had called several penalties early when Canada began cracking the U.S. women against the boards, the Americans' speed might have won out in the end. Because the refs let them play, the Canadians asserted themselves physically throughout the game, which paid dividends when they scored three straight third-period goals against a weary U.S. squad.

One thing is for sure: These two teams stand head, shoulders, and torso above their competition. Star players like Knight, pugnacious Boston-based forward Meghan Duggan, and Canada's Meghan Agosta-Marciano (the 2010 Olympics MVP) had monster games Wednesday. Meanwhile, bronze-medal favorite Finland squeaked by Switzerland with a 4-3 overtime win—the same Swiss team that the U.S. pummeled 9-0 on Monday.

Though Canada won this round, both teams have advanced to the semifinals, meaning the hockey world is two wins away from a U.S.-Canada rematch for the championship. Barring an upset on the scale of Miracle on Ice, these teams will be in the rink for the gold medal game next Thursday, which gives Stone and Canadian coach Kevin Dineen a week to tweak their game plans based on Wednesday’s nail-biter.

But the truth is that there isn’t much more game-planning that can be done. These two elite squads know each other well, and the game is likely to come down to a fortuitous bounce, a referee’s call, or a lights-out performance by Vetter or Canadian goalie Charline Labonte. My money’s on the U.S. to come away with gold, but either way, it figures to be a tense showdown and one of the highlights of the entire Sochi Olympics.