SOCHI, Russia — They needed it. Goodness knows they needed it. After all they have been through, the members of the Canadian women’s hockey team needed to feel like they did after their 3-2 victory Wednesday – like they could beat the archrival Americans, like they were the three-time defending Olympic champions and not a fading, dysfunctional mess.
Just know that they needed it a lot more than the Americans did (and got a goal on a bad call). Though they played so close to the Olympic flame you could hear it burn outside the arena, though they played in front of NHL stars like Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel, both teams were simply playing their last preliminary game. Both had already advanced to the semifinals under the new format. This was for seeding and psychology.
“We wanted to see where we were at this point,” said Canadian captain Caroline Ouellette. “This is a huge boost for our confidence. We know we’re even with them, and if we do the little things right, we have a good chance to win.”
It was only two months ago that coach Dan Church abruptly resigned because of battles with general manager Melody Davidson. It was only 57 days ago that Hockey Canada replaced Church with Kevin Dineen. Fifty-seven days. That’s how long Dineen had to put his players in a position to beat the Americans.
Say what you want about the state of women’s hockey. It is improving. The Finns and the Swiss are threats. But it is still a two-team race, barring an upset.
The International Olympic Committee didn’t want the Canadians and the Americans to keep beating up on everybody so badly, so it put the top four teams in the same group, giving all four automatic passes to the medal round and the top two spots in the semis. The Canadians still beat the Finns and the Swiss by a combined score of 8-0. The Americans still beat them by a combined score of 12-1.
The Canadians know they can’t look past anyone in the semis. But they also know they almost certainly will need to get past the Americans to win gold again – and they came to Sochi having lost four straight to the U.S.
“I don’t know how many losses we had in a row – four or five,” said goaltender Caroline Labonte. “I don’t really care about that. But I know we’ve been a little bit struggling against the States, so I think as a team we’ve been working on things to get better and get ready for this game.”
Dineen compared the Canada-U.S. women’s hockey rivalry to Michigan-Ohio State in college football or Red Sox-Yankees in big-league baseball. Yet this was only the fifth meeting between these teams in the Olympics. Each team had won two. It was a fast, back-and-forth game – the fastest Ouellette said she had ever seen between the teams. Instead of rolling four lines, Dineen went to a three-line rotation, focusing on matchups.
[Related: Canada's victory over U.S. aided by controversial own-goal]
The Canadians had more scoring chances in the first period. But the Americans dominated for a 10-minute stretch in the second and took a 1-0 lead. A good sign for the Canadians: They didn’t panic. They didn’t fall apart. They didn’t let their failures affect them. Dineen said they showed “a little character.”
“We knew going into the third we kind of had them where we wanted them,” said forward Meghan Agosta-Marciano.
Um, really? The Canadians wanted the Americans up, 1-0?
“Because it’s so hard to keep a lead like that,” Agosta-Marciano said.
Well, it was Wednesday, anyway, largely because of center Hayley Wickenheiser, who is such a legend that she was named the flag-bearer for the opening ceremony – but who also lost her captaincy after Dineen took over. She is not wearing the “C” in a major tournament for the first time since 2006.
Wickenheiser collected a rebound on a power play. Instead of forcing a shot through traffic, she whipped a backhand pass from left to right across the slot for Agosta-Marciano, who put it in the yawning net. Tie game.
Then Wickenheiser roared down the right wing and fired. U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter made the save and reached out for the rebound. But teammate Alex Carpenter touched the puck, and it slipped underneath. The whistle blew before the puck crossed the line, but the goal counted after video review.
“I did hear the whistle blow before the puck went in,” said U.S. coach Katey Stone.
Did Wickenheiser hear the whistle?
“Only after it crossed the line,” she said with a smile.
It was 2-1. Agosta-Marciano made it 3-1 on a breakaway, before Anne Schleper made it interesting with 1:05 to go.
Here’s the thing: The Canadians came back from a 1-0 third-period deficit and cleared a huge mental hurdle. Their best players played like their best players. They said they had improved, and they credited Dineen. All good things.
“We have our fundamentals that we want to stick to, but we also want to make plays,” Wickenheiser said. “I think we’re just playing a little bit more free, a little bit less tight. The skill and the ability we have on our team is starting to come out.”
But Stone said she was “indifferent” about the Americans’ game, and if the Americans let any complacency creep in, all that is gone now. All this might have done is tick them off and wake them up for when it really matters.
“I put a little bit on our team,” said U.S. star Amanda Kessel, who was unusually quiet all night. “I don’t think we came out with the same fire. We weren’t forechecking like we should. So I really don’t think it was a game that we played to our style.”
She wasn’t crying, but she was emotional, her voice shaking.
“It hurts,” she said. “Hopefully we’re going to have another crack at them.”
The Canadians reignited the rivalry Wednesday. They’d better be ready.