BEIJING — In a rivalry as intense as the one between the U.S. and Canada, nothing feels more rewarding than winning when the stakes are highest. And when you lose?
"It stings,'' U.S. forward Amanda Kessel said. "I won't forget this, probably ever.''
The U.S. experienced the flip side again Thursday, falling 3-2 in the sixth Olympic gold medal game between the women's hockey heavyweights. Four years after they experienced the unabashed joy of dethroning Canada as Olympic champions, the Americans stood glumly on the ice in Beijing to accept silver medals.
It was a frustrating end to a long and often fraught journey, one that began in Blaine last fall when the team began its pre-Olympic residency. After Thursday's game, goaltender Alex Cavallini revealed she tore a knee ligament in January and wasn't feeling 100% until this week. Veteran center Brianna Decker, one of the team's top players, was knocked out of the tournament when she broke her leg in the first game.
A rash of positive COVID tests interrupted training last month, making some players wonder if they would make it to the Games. The team's goaltending coach tested positive in Beijing and had to isolate for several days, and reserve forward Britta Curl, who could have joined the team in China after Decker was hurt, tested positive for COVID and could not travel.
None of the Americans wanted to blame those woes for the loss at Wukesong Sports Centre. They outshot Canada 40-21 but did not score until 16 minutes, 39 seconds of the second period, when former Gopher Hannah Brandt set up Hilary Knight for a shorthanded goal.
By that time, Marie-Philip Poulin had tormented the U.S. in yet another Olympics, scoring two goals as Canada built a 3-0 lead. Kessel, another former Gopher, added a power-play goal with 12.5 seconds left, but that was far too late.
"It's not the result we wanted,'' U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said. "It's not the result we came here to get. But I think when you look at these last two weeks, and the adversity we faced? We were able to overcome those things, and we have so much to be proud of.''
The Canadians collected some records to go with their fifth Olympic gold medal. Poulin now has seven goals in Olympic gold medal games, becoming the first hockey player—women's or men's—to score in four games with Winter Games gold on the line. Sarah Nurse, who scored first for Canada, set an Olympic women's tournament record with 18 points.
“Weeks from now, we'll have to appreciate the fact that we went to the Olympic Games and earned a medal. That's extremely special. But right now, it definitely stings.”
Canada also broke the Olympic mark for most goals in the women's tournament, outscoring opponents 57-10.
Poulin has been the Americans' chief tormentor for a dozen years. She has scored the goals that beat the U.S. in three Olympic gold medal games, as well as the game-winner last summer when Canada defeated the U.S. for the world championship.
At the 2018 Winter Games, Canada lost to the U.S. 3-2 in a shootout for the gold, upsetting some players so much they took off their silver medals. That day, the Canadians felt exactly as Kessel did on Thursday, and they vowed not to let it happen again.
"2018 was very hard,'' Poulin said. "We are resilient, and we were going to put that in the past and win that gold. We have been putting in the work. To be rewarded with the gold medal makes it all worth it.''
After a 20-year stretch between Olympic gold medals, the U.S. hoped to repeat as champions for the first time. Instead, they will come home with their fourth silver after struggling throughout the tournament to convert scoring chances into goals.
The Americans finished the tournament as the second-highest-scoring team. But they ranked seventh of 10 teams in scoring efficiency, connecting for 30 goals on a whopping 374 shots. That pattern continued Thursday, starting when Brandt got a wide-open net to shoot at and banged the puck off the left goalpost less than three minutes into the game.
Canada's assertive forecheck quickly turned the action back to the other end. Nurse directed in a shot off the heel of her stick at 7:50 of the first period. Poulin made it 2-0, intercepting a U.S. clearing pass and skating in to beat Cavallini at 15:02.
Poulin's second goal came when she swatted in a rebound midway through the second period. A late penalty on the U.S. created more opportunity for Canada, but Brandt's takeaway started a two-on-one that Knight finished with a shorthanded goal.
"That was big for us,'' Brandt said. "I kind of hoped it would open things up for us, and we did get a lot of chances after that. But we just weren't able to bury one in the beginning of the third, which would have been huge.''
The Americans bombarded Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens with 16 shots in the third, while Cavallini saw only four. They couldn't break the curse, failing to score until Kessel's goal on a power play with Cavallini pulled.
Knight, who led the U.S. with six goals in the tournament, said "it feels like we let our country down.'' U.S. coach Joel Johnson, the longtime Gophers assistant who now leads the St. Thomas women's program, acknowledged the pain of falling short. But with the injuries and the pandemic, he said the road to the gold medal game was exceptionally tough, and so was his team.
Knight didn't disagree. It was just hard to see Thursday, when the Canadians were the ones singing an off-key rendition of their national anthem.
"Weeks from now, we'll have to appreciate the fact that we went to the Olympic Games and earned a medal,'' she said. "That's extremely special. But right now, it definitely stings.''