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Canada wins Olympic hockey gold in game that lives up to billing


It was, in an Olympic Games that has been short of big showdowns, supposed to be an epic

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BEIJING — It was, in an Olympic Games that has been short of big showdowns, supposed to be an epic. That is, after all, what Canada versus the United States in women’s hockey does.

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A puck that slides just inches wide for a would-be game-winner. An overtime dagger. A shootout heartbreaker.

And, just when it looked like Canada might cruise to a comfortable win, something happened. Canada versus the United States happened. Up 3-1 and just trying to kill clock with the American goalie pulled, Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin took a penalty with 1:25 to go that gave the United States a 6-on-4 advantage. That brought about a frenzied closing stretch, with bodies flying everywhere, pucks bouncing off shins and pads and sticks, and rousing cheers and hollers from the Canadian bench with each block, each clearance. A goal from Amanda Kessel made it a one-goal deficit with just 13 seconds to play, but that was essentially it. When the goal light went on, the Americans on the ice immediately looked to the scoreboard. Shoulders sagged when they saw what they had to work with.

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Those 12 seconds passed quickly, and the Canadians poured over the bench and on to the ice. Gloves were thrown, sticks were tossed. Four years of build up, and then release and relief.

“It is insane. I can’t stop shaking,” said Canadian forward Sarah Fillier, on her first Olympic medal coming after that chaotic finish. “It’s a dream come true.”

“I don’t think can find the words,” Fillier said. “I’m still shaking.”

Where Fillier was an Olympic rookie, Natalie Spooner is the veteran, playing in her third Olympics. She was part of the heartbreak from a shootout loss in Korea, and knew the thrill of the overtime win in Sochi.

“Just getting into that pile is pretty cool,” she said of the elation after the final whistle. “I was crying, I was happy, I was relieved.”

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It had shaped up as one of the signature events of the Olympics. Where an alpine battle between American star Mikael Shiffrin and Slovak rival Petra Vlhova was foiled by Shiffrin’s multiple early crashes, where the figure-skating events have been overshadowed by a doping controversy, and where the men’s hockey tournament was rendered a bit of a dud by the late withdrawal of NHL star power, here was a marquee tilt. Two powerhouse teams, full of players that know the joy and suffering of an Olympic final. They also don’t like each other much. Spooner had said after the win in the prelims that her team always wants to make a statement against the Americans, “to show them that they don’t belong on the ice with us.” Yikes.

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It looked for a short while on Thursday at Wukesong Sports Centre that she might be right. The Canadians, deep, talented and loaded with firepower — with a combined 54-8 scoreline through six games in Beijing — came out flying. They scored a goal eight minutes in that was ruled out for offside, then scored again a minute later, with Sarah Nurse redirecting a Claire Thompson point shot past Alex Cavallini.

Poulin then made the likely play of the game, stealing the puck from Megan Keller on a back check and quickly firing it in the net. This is what Poulin does: score huge goals. She added a third in the second period, shooting a rebound on goal from a bad angle on a rush, and watched as it went off Cavallini’s skate and in for a 3-0 lead.

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Where the Canadian women’s soccer team won an Olympic gold medal this past summer with three utterly death-defying games, two of them in shootouts, their hockey counterparts had just seized control of their biggest game. They looked unbeatable.

Of course the Americans had a push left. Hilary Knight scored shorthanded late in the third period to make it a two-goal game, and while Canada held them off for most of that final frame, American desperation in the closing minutes had the Canadians reeling. In a quiet arena — China does not yet know what to make of hockey — the shouts and encouragement from the red-and-black could be easily heard. They sounded like they were having a blast, despite it all.

Poulin’s penalty dulled the Canadian fun. In the box, she hammered her gloves on the glass, cheering her teammates on. They responded, skating, diving, sliding, chasing after loose pucks in front of goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens.

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“They were putting their bodies on the line for us,” said Fillier. “For Canada.”

Hannah Brandt of the United States with teammates look dejected after the match.
Hannah Brandt of the United States with teammates look dejected after the match. Photo by Annegret Hilse /Reuters

When it was over, when they could finally exhale, Poulin, who has now scored a ridiculous seven goals in Olympic gold-medal finals, was succinct:

“It’s a great feeling,” she said. “It was one hell of an effort. This is redemption.”

Poulin said afterward, that even while she was banging on the glass in the box, “I knew they would do the job, to be honest.”

“Our (defence) made unbelievable plays at that moment, but there was trust there. I was pounding a lot on the glass, but I knew they were going to make the plays,” Poulin said.

The strange thing about that frenzied finish is that, even though Canada gave up the goal, they effectively ran out the clock while doing it.

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“I can tell you that, even though there was only 12 seconds to go,” said head coach Troy Ryan, “It was pretty exciting to have Pou come out to that that faceoff.”

She won it, too. The Americans couldn’t muster a scoring chance in the closing seconds.

“The U.S. is an amazing team,” said Spooner, reflective at the end. “We knew they would bring it, and they did bring it.”

And in doing so, they had shown again why Canada versus the United States, in Olympic women’s hockey, is sporting theatre at its best.

“It’s the greatest rivalry in sport,” said American defender Cayla Barnes, who played almost 29 minutes on the night. “We love it,” she said, even if the result wasn’t what they wanted.

Kendall Coyne-Schofield, her teammate, was asked if the game had been a good advertisement for women’s hockey. She started to answer, then stopped to fight back tears.

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Canada’s players celebrate their victory during the women’s gold medal match of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games ice hockey competition between Canada and USA at the Wukesong Sports Centre in Beijing on February 17, 2022. (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP)
Canada’s players celebrate their victory during the women’s gold medal match of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games ice hockey competition between Canada and USA at the Wukesong Sports Centre in Beijing on February 17, 2022. (Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP) Photo by ANTHONY WALLACE /AFP via Getty Images

“Women’s hockey cannot be silenced,” she said, the tears flowing now. “Not after what we’ve shown the last two weeks.”

Hannah Brandt of the United States with teammates look dejected after the match.
Hannah Brandt of the United States with teammates look dejected after the match. Photo by Annegret Hilse /Reuters

Canada’s Brianne Jenner said she knows that a lot of little girls see their first women’s hockey at the Olympics. They saw a thrilling finale.

She echoed the redemption theme, saying that Canada had gone through “a long haul of silvers, and a lot of soul-searching.”

They knew they had to raise their level to overcome their rivals, Jenner said. “We just said, ‘Let’s be bold, let’s be brave.”

For 60 minutes, every last second of them, they were that.

Postmedia News

sstinson@postmedia.com

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