The new coach of Canada's Olympic women's hockey team, Kevin Dineen, will go the Sochi Olympics without ever beating the U.S., after the Canadians suffered a fourth straight loss to their biggest rival in the last pre-Olympic tune-up game between the two.
Canada dug out of a three-goal deficit but suffered a 3-2 loss to the U.S in the final game of a six-game series marked by a growing intensity and animosity between the marquee nemeses in women's hockey, a series that drew some big crowds and grabbed headlines with a pair of brawls, all building excitement for the Olympic tournament in February.
Playing on NHL ice at Toronto's Air Canada Centre before a crowd of 17,227 -- by far the largest crowd of this series – the U.S. capitalized on Canadian penalty trouble in the second period and scored three times. Two late goals from Natalie Spooner and Brianne Jenner were too little too late for Canada, a squad preparing to fight for its fourth straight Olympic gold medal.
It was the seventh and final time the two teams would play before the Sochi Olympics. Canada beat the U.S. in the semi-finals of the Four Nations Cup back in November and won two games in their six-game pre-Olympic series. But the youthful, speedy-skating Americans have won the last four meetings.
In goal for Canada was Genevieve Lacasse of Kingston, Ont., the youngest and least-experienced of the three Canadian net-minders at age 24, and the only goalie making her Olympic debut.
The U.S scored three goals in a second period full of Canadian penalties. First Kelli Stack fired toward the Canadian net and Hilary Knight got a stick on the puck to redirect it past Lacasse. Then, 49 seconds later, Stack netted a second one on the power play.
Knight batted in another in the second period which was waved off on a high sticking call. But the U.S wasn't long getting that third goal, delivered by Megan Bozek minutes later. As Canada racked up five penalties in the period and was outshot 16-8, the U.S. mounted a three-goal lead.
Canada finally got on the board with 33 seconds left in the second period, as Scarborough's Natalie Spooner broke loose and scampered in alone to beat US goalie Molly Shaus. The momentum continued for the Canadians to open the third period, as Brianne Jenner of Oakville, Ont. banged in her own rebound for a short-handed goal.
The Canadians emptied their net and peppered the U.S goal in the dying seconds before a frenzied crowd loaded with young girls in hockey jerseys. But they couldn't net one, and took the loss in the last big send-off game before the Olympics.
Dineen goes to Sochi winless against the U.S. after hopping on board with the team suddenly after Dan Church resigned suddenly for personal reasons on Dec. 12.
"With winning, life gets easy, and we haven't done that since I've been here, and that puts a little strain on things," said Dineen, who played for Canada in the 1984 Olympics and coached the Florida Panthers from 2011-2013. "But I've told them I'm 100 percent committed to this."
Team USA outshot Canada 30-27 but was once again without rising star Amanda Kessel, younger sister of Toronto Maple Leaf Phil Kessel, and arguably their best player. She is still rehabbing an undisclosed lower-body injury which has kept her out of all of Team USA's international games this fall but is on course to be healthy for Sochi. Kessel was the top American scorer at the 2013 World Championships in Ottawa, netting the winning goal over Canada in the gold-medal final for the fourth U.S world title in the past five years.
This series has been part of a highly challenging pre-Olympic competition schedule for the Canadian women in advance of Sochi. In addition to the games against the U.S and other nations they will face at the Olympics, Canada is also playing in the AAA Alberta Boys Midget Hockey League, where it currently has a 3-7-3 record.
"It's disappointing, we should have and could have played better," said Hayley Wickenheiser.
Heading to her fifth Olympics, Wickenheiser acknowledged that this pre-Olympic schedule was built to be grueling.
"That's the whole point of our schedule," said Wickenheiser. "Making it tough so the Olympic feels easy."
History has shown that results of pre-Olympic matchups between Canada and the U.S. do little to predict which of these foes is likely to win gold on Olympic ice. Canada lost every one of its eight exhibition games versus the U.S. leading up to the 2002 Olympics, but became Olympic champions in Salt Lake City.
"It's just a piece of the puzzle, but it does give us confidence, there's no doubt about that," said U.S coach Katey Stone. "It was a kick in the tail for us when we were the ones losing three in a row and Canada was exposing our weaknesses. It's good confidence for our kids, but they know December is very different from February."
Before Sochi, Canada will have a three-day rest, then five more games in the midget league before playing exhibition games in Austria for 10 days right before going the Olympics.
"Our last game, we walked out feeling pretty good, but tonight there were some shoulda couldas," said Dineen. "Maybe our power play sucked a little life out of us, and we have to have more consistency in all areas of our game."
The Olympic tournament opens on Feb. 8 with the gold medal game being played Feb. 20.