If the U.S. Olympic Women's Hockey Team wanted some adversity heading into the medal round, it's got it.
After taking a 1-0 lead on a power-play tip-in by Hilary Knight (Wisconsin) late in the second period on Wednesday, the Americans surrendered three goals in the final 20 minutes to drop a 3-2 decision to archrival Canada in the preliminary round of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Canada finished first in Group ‘A’ with a 3-0-0 record, while the U.S. went 2-1-0. The Olympic semifinals will be held on Monday, with the gold medal game to take place on Feb. 20.
Meghan Agosta-Marciano (Mercyhurst), the NCAA's all-time leading with 303 career points from 2006 to 2011, and the MVP for Canada in its 2010 Olympic triumph in Vancouver, scored two of Canada's three goals on Wednesday to celebrate her 27th birthday. She tied the game early in the third period on a power play, slamming home a centering feed from the ageless Hayley Wickenheiser, and then sped away with an errant puck on a breakaway to beat Jesse Vetter (Wisconsin) to make it 3-1 for Canada.
The U.S. pulled within a goal with just over 30 seconds left on a slapper from the left side by Anne Schleper (Minnesota), who also assisted on Team USA's first goal, but that was as close as America would come. Charline Labonté (McGill) finished with 25 stops for Canada to snap America's four-game winning string over its northern neighbors.
Wickenheiser was credited with the game-winning goal in the final stanza when Vetter (28 saves), a three-time NCAA champion, attempted to cover up a shot with her gloves, but instead pushed it through her pads and into the net. Canada celebrated even though the whistle had blown before the puck actually crossed the goal line, but the Swiss referee reviewed the play and called it a goal. U.S. coach Katey Stone (Harvard) didn't agree when the referee's explanation was given to her, but the play put Canada ahead to stay.
The officiating was suspect for most of the game. Body checks on both sides were let go, Canada escaped two situations when it clearly had too many players on the ice (including seven players in one instance), and an apparent icing was not called on the Americans. To top it off, Team Canada coach and former NHL player/coach Kevin Dineen was livid after the U.S. was seemingly awarded a second time-out late in regulation.
The U.S. didn't help its own cause, however. It gave up several rushes off the left side early in the contest that Vetter had to stop to keep Canada off the board. American forwards had a hard time solving Canada's physical defense down low, and didn't convert on several close-in chances, including a shorthanded partial breakaway by Kelli Stack in the second stanza.
Agosta-Marciano’s breakaway goal was set up when Knight couldn’t corral the puck near the left boards in Canada’s zone, and Gigi Marvin (Minnesota) had pinched too far to her right along the blueline in anticipation of a pass from Knight. That left Agosta-Marciano a clear lane up the middle to skate in and shoot between old foe Vetter’s pads for a two-goal lead.
After falling behind in the third period, the U.S. also didn't register a shot on goal until there were three-and-a-half minutes left—and that was on a blast from the redline by Megan Bozek (Minnesota). The U.S. finished 1-for-4 on the power play, and was outshot, 31-27.
The Americans will have now four days to regroup for their semifinal round game on Monday, possibly against Finland, which the U.S. topped, 3-1, on Saturday to open this year's tournament. After that could come yet another rematch with Canada, this time with gold (again) on the line.