Same old Wickenheiser.
The women’s hockey Team Canada stormed back in the third period Wednesday to claim victory over the U.S. team that had beaten them four times heading into the Olympics – the comeback largely due to the determined play of 35-year-old former captain Hayley Wickenheiser.
The match was in fact a relatively meaningless game in the opening round robin, but one dripping with meaning in that only longest-shot bettors would ever see any teams but Canada and the U.S. meeting in the gold medal match.
Though the event was non-ticketed, Shayba Arena was nonetheless packed for the match of these two bitter rivals, with even media facilities at a premium.
The two teams have a fascinating history of animosity – Canada the defending Olympic champion, the Americans having won four exhibition games in a row going into Sochi, two line brawls in 2013 – that tensions were expected to be high and for the most part were.
Unfortunately, so, too, were nerves. The early puck handling was stumbling, the passing off key and both power plays sputtering in the early going. But in the later going, it got going itself.
“Exactly what we expected,” said Canadian head coach Kevin Dineen, who only took over the job in December. “A one-goal game, back and forth, momentum shifting.”
Momentum was with the Americans in the opening period, but Canadian goaltender Charline Labonté made an excellent save off swift American forward Brianna Decker from point blank. She later stopped a shorthanded U.S.A. breakaway when Canada’s Laura Fortino could not keep the puck in at the American blueline and Kelli Stack had a clear chance on Labonté, but the Canadian goalie gave her nothing to shoot at.
The Americans finally scored seven-and-a-half minutes into the second period. The U.S. went on the power play courtesy of a “woman body checking” penalty to Canadian defender Lauriane Rougeau, and American forward Hilary Knight managed to tip a puck past Labonté’s blocker for a 1-0 U.S. lead.
For the remainder of the second period, it was total American dominance, and the Canadians were fortunate the score rose no higher.
Canadian fortunes began to turn in the third and they were led by Wickenheiser, the former captain of the team whom Dineen replaced with Caroline Ouellette. On an early power play, Wickenheiser sent a sweet pass across the U.S. crease to Meghan Agosta-Marciano and Agosta-Marciano ripped a shot into the open near side.
“We knew we just needed to get one early,” said Agosta-Marciano.
Less than two minutes later, Wickenheiser scored herself on a tremendous effort where she bulled toward the American net and got a shot away that, eventually, slid in behind U.S. goaltender Jessie Vetter.
The Americans loudly protested the goal, claiming a whistle had blown and Wickenheiser had started celebrating even before the goal light went on.
“I saw it cross the line,” said Wickenheiser, “so I just jumped up and celebrated.”
“I did hear the whistle,” said U.S. head coach Katey Stone. “I did.”
“We couldn’t do anything about it,” said American forward Brianna Decker. The referees are the referees.”
“It was a stinger,” said American forward Jocelyne Lamoureux.
Dineen was effusive in his praise of Wickenheiser’s play: “Hayley’s the kind of player who stood up when we needed her.”
Agosta-Marciano later put Canada ahead on a sloppy play in the U.S. end that allowed her to break away and cleanly beat Vetter.
“It’s her birthday today,” Dineen said of Agosta-Marciano, who turned 27. “And that was a heck of a present.”
The American players were adamant that the loss not fall on Vetter, who faced 31 shots in the game compared to 27 for Labonte.
“She played well,” said Decker, who along with equally-speedy linemate Amanda Kessel, did not get untracked all night.
“She’s the best goalie in the world,” added U.S. captain Meghan Duggan.
The Americans did draw to within one after Labonte made two pad saves close in but could not hold onto a puck that came in from Anne Schleper skating in from the point.
But by then it was too late.
“This is one game,” said Team U.S.A. veteran Julie Chu. “There is a lot of hockey left to play.”
But not for a while – both teams have four days until their next matches.