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It may have been the strangest women's hockey game ever played.
It may well have been the most exciting.
It most certainly had to be the happiest and unhappiest for the two countries involved – happy for Canada, winning a fourth consecutive gold medal in women's Olympic hockey, unhappy for the United States, which outplayed and outscored Canada until, with only 3:26 left in the game, their seemingly sure dream turned into the worst imaginable nightmare.
Marie-Philip Poulin scored with 55 seconds left to play in regulation, then put away the winner 8:10 into overtime as Canada edged the United States 3-2 to capture the gold medal in Sochi.
Four years ago in Vancouver, some fools in the media went after Poulin for drinking beer under age. This time, an entire country is toasting the fabulous 22-year-old star – even if they do so in a bit of a state of disbelief.
"She's the best player in the world," longtime Canadian team veteran Jayna Hefford said of the player teammates all call "Pou."
"There's something in her eyes that spells 'Big Game Player,' " added Canadian head coach Kevin Dineen. "They got the puck on the right stick."
"I shot and it went in," was all the quietly spoken Ms. Poulin would say of her heroics.
"It's the hockey gods, I guess," giggled Brianne Jenner, whose goal off an American player's knee got matters going.
It seemed only appropriate that a Twitter account calling itself "The Tweet of God" would tweet: "Okay, seriously, that's the LAST time I help you out, Canada. This time I mean it."
Joking aside, it certainly seemed there were mysterious forces at work in Bolshoy Ice Dome, though early in the game it seemed the only magic to be found was in an intermission mentalist who bent a fork on the scoreboard screen.
The Americans seemingly had the game won. They had forechecked better, defended better and were more ferocious on the puck – particularly the Lamoureaux sisters, Monique and Jocelyne, who appear to be particular burrs to the Canadian women.
So dominant were the Americans that it seemed a given that the gold would go to the United States for only the second time since women's hockey was added to the Winter Games in Nagano in 1998. They won that year, the Canadians won in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
But it all fell apart in a matter of minutes. First Jenner came flying up the left side, cut to the middle and fired a looping, fluttering shot that bounced off the knee of American Kacey Bellamy.
"It was going wide," said a disappointed U.S. goaltender Jennie Vetter.
Then, with Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados pulled for an extra attacker, the Americans failed to put the game away when a long clearing shot by forward Kelli Stack clicked off the empty-net post rather than going in.
"I was hoping it would go in," said Vetter, who watched, and prayed, from the other end of the ice.
"Please don't go in," prayed Szabados from her spot on the Canadian bench.
"We had the game in hand," said American coach Katey Stone. "When that puck goes down the ice and hits the post … that could have been the game right there."
That break gave Canada the needed second life. With less than a minute to go in regulation, Vetter misplayed a simple shot out from the corner by Rebecca Johnston. Instead of tapping the puck back of her net, Vetter put it onto the stick of Poulin and in two quick movements the puck was behind Vetter.
"I thought I had deflected it away from the slot," said the American goaltender. "I thought I did – but she buried it."
When regulation ran out, the two teams were to play another 20 minutes of overtime. Six minutes in, however, penalties were called, one a "slashing" penalty on Jocelyne Lamoureaux for tapping the pads of Szabados during a goalmouth scramble. With the Americans having two players in the penalty box and Canada one, the Canadians used a four-on-three power play to get the winner when Poulin fired the puck into the empty side from low in the left circle.
"When we got the four-on-three," said Hayley Wickenheiser, who was trying to screen Vetter on the play, "we knew exactly what we had to do."
"She has one of the best shots on our team," said an admiring Szabados. "If she's open, get her the puck."
Poulin turned toward her bench with her arms out, seemingly in equal disbelief with the 10,639 watching in the rink and the millions watching on television. It could not possibly have happened – but it did.
Asked about the standard of officiating, American coach Stone offered only a curt "No comment."
The American women, who may take years to recover their hockey equilibrium from this moment, had taken their lead slowly. Captain Meghan Duggan had scored halfway through the second period when Canadian defender Catherine Ward failed to clear a puck cleanly. Jocelyne Lamoureaux picked it up, came fast across the Canadian blueline, left the puck and charged into the defence to provide a screen for a shot from Duggan that beat Szabados to the glove side.
Alex Carpenter put the Americans up 2-0 on the power play when she swatted at a puck in the crease area and it clicked in off the post. And right up until the 56:34 mark, when Jenner scored, it seemed that was enough.
"Not the ending we wanted," said Duggan, who began crying in the mixed zone. "But I'm proud of us."
"Everybody played their heart out," added U.S. forward Hilary Knight. "We've got our pride."
So, too, do the Canadians – and it had taken a bit of a beating over the past several months as they lost often to the Americans in exhibition play, replaced their coach and turned the captaincy from Wickenheiser to Caroline Ouellette.
If Dineen had lost faith in Wickenheiser as captain, though, it was not to be seen this night, as he played the 35-year-old in every difficult position and she responded marvellously.
Wickenheiser was quick to praise their new coach, saying Dineen brought experience and calmness and "demanded excellence" from the women – and it paid off.
"This was a very difficult year," she added. "You could probably make a movie about what we've been through this year."
Perhaps they will. One with a surprise, and very happy, ending.
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