SOCHI, Russia — One crumpled to the ice. One tossed her stick into the air in frustration. One bent over at the waist, her stick propped on her knees. One sobbed. One gathered teammates together to tell them the importance of team. One stared straight ahead, eyes red and bloodshot.
All of them had to stand there, watching the hated rivals celebrate again. All of them had to see the Canadians get their red jerseys draped with gold medals again. All of them had to listen to the other side's anthem. Again.
All of them had to wonder: How did that just happen? How did a 2-0 third-period lead evaporate in less than 3½ minutes? How did a game-clinching shot at an empty net hit the left post and skitter away? How did a brave overtime flurry give way to a devastating overtime goal?
Less than four minutes to gold.
Less than four inches to gold.
Four more years of silver.
The mixed zone after Team USA's final-round 3-2 overtime loss to Canada was a study in grief. Meghan Duggan cried. Goalie Jessie Vetter, who flung her stick in the air toward the boards when she allowed the game-winning goal to Marie-Philip Poulin, forced a smile and said she was proud of the effort. "We played a great game," she said, in a variety of ways, four times in a row. Julie Chu, for whom so many on this team wanted to win just one gold-medal game, stood with her shoulders back and explained her decision to pull teammates together after the loss and encourage them to stay strong. Jocelyne Lamoureux agreed when it was suggested to her that bad penalty calls put the team in a bad position. Then she tilted her head to the side and softly said, "Felt like we had it the whole time."
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Then there was Kelli Stack. She was the one who fired the puck the length of the ice when her team had a 2-1 lead with less than two minutes left in the game. She was the one who knew right away that it would hit the left post. She was the one who knew what that felt like, because it had happened to her before. When she was playing for Boston College, she corralled a puck in about the same area, shot it at an empty net, saw it bounce off the left post and then watched the other team, St. Lawrence, tie the score with almost no time left.
"It's the worst feeling in the world," she said.
It was then, and it is now. More so. Much, much more so. The Canadians scored with 3:26 left, then with 55 seconds left, then after 8:10 of overtime.
"I had no doubt that we were going to win," Stack said, "and we were up by two goals, so it's just heartbreaking, and shocking, that we didn't win the game. It feels like a dream."
It wasn't that the Americans weren't good enough. It was that they weren't good enough in the crucial moment. It was all there for nearly the whole game, and then it was all gone.
"I always cringe at a two-goal lead," Stack said, looking up at the ceiling, tears starting to gather, "because for some reason, we always let them come back."
That's the hardest part. They really did think this year would be their year to beat Canada. "We talked a lot," Stack said haltingly, "about how our team is different." The Canadians had struggled; the U.S. was fast; the momentum was theirs — in the tournament and in this game. Even after giving up those two goals, the tying tally coming with less than a minute left, the team picked itself up.
"We still believed," Stack said, "we were going to win in the end."
They believed they would finally break a streak that dated to Nagano in 1998. "We wanted this to be the team," Stack said, "to bring the gold medal back."
The streak goes on. In 2018, it will be 20 years. It already feels like 20 years to these players.
Stack said she wants to look at the tape. She wants to try to figure out how it all came apart at the moment when it was all coming together. "We were so focused on doing our job and not letting what happened happen," she said. "I don't know how it happened."
Before looking at the tape, though, she had to do something else. She stood in the mixed zone and looked through a doorway to the hall leading to her locker room. Her teammates were all in there now. They would all be together, just like they were four years ago in Vancouver, with second place and no answers.
Four minutes. Four inches. Four years, starting again.