The new format for international hockey tournaments ensured a matchup between Canada and USA Wednesday morning. Both teams already secured byes into the semi-final round, rendering the contest supposedly meaningless. But as possibly the best rivalry in international sports, this game was the one circled on calendars since the Olympic schedule was released.
Canada changed coaches just two months before the games and did not beat Team USA in the final months before Sochi. It had won four straight before the new year, but it was all the Americans once the calendar turned to 2014.
Such was the stage that was set for an early-morning (in North America) game that failed to fall in line with Team USA's plan.
Likely the most talked-about part of this game will be the refereeing.
Canada won, 3-2, on a controversial goal that went in the net after a whistle was blown. Jessie Vetter fell on the puck and the refs called the play dead. The whistle was blown prematurely, as Vetter did not have control of the puck and it trickled into the net.
Additionally, commentators showed two different times where Canada had too many women on the ice (once with seven skaters). Both teams can make cases about checking and hitting penalties not called. It appeared they may have let Team USA take an additional timeout at the end of the game when Canada was called for a penalty with 1:05 left in the game. This on the heels of refs missing a goal in the Japan-Russia game yesterday and then missing the call to review the play before action resumed.
While Vetter will be asked about that goal for a long time to come, it shouldn't overshadow a truly outstanding performance on her part. Defense is the weakest part of Team USA's game, and at times Wednesday, it was even shakier than in the past. The first period was about the teams feeling each other out, but Canada had the more dangerous chances and it was Vetter who kept Team USA in the game.
Hilary Knight scored USA's first goal. Anne Schleper fired a long shot on the power play in the second period and Knight tipped it in for her third goal of the tournament. She leads all Americans with three goals and leads the tournament with five points.
Schleper scored the second goal in the waning minutes after USA pulled Vetter for an extra skater.
The game was physical and USA was unable to find the rhythm it established against Finland and Switzerland. Canada's defense was pesky and in every USA play. The beginning of the second period and most of the third period will be the focus of USA's tape-watching when it looks to correct things before a rematch. Sloppy play, an inability to set up and evident frustration kept USA on its heels and from playing its game.
Both Knight and Brianna Decker were bright spots in a day that wasn't full of them for Team USA. Decker was solid and consistant, carrying the puck into the zone, setting it up and generally keeping the team together when it was otherwise falling apart. She did take two penalties, though it's difficult to fault her for being unlucky to get called for penalties while others were not. Knight was the workhorse who continued to find moments of absolute puck-handling brilliance and poise in the middle of chaos. She broke Kelli Stack for a short-handed chance and showed why this is the second Olympics in which announcers are calling her "possibly the best women's player in the world."
Team USA had the momentum coming into the game and Canada obviously snatched it away with this win. AJ Mlezko got overly hyperbolic when she said this win by Canada completely changes the landscape of the tournament. This rivalry is so good because the teams are so evenly matched and because what happened before does not matter. Every game is a toss-up and the outcome is not a foregone conclusion for either. They make each other better. USA might have had more confidence going into this match, but it never assumed a win. Canada taking this first game should in no way impact the outlook on the presumed gold medal game. It will be hard faught, physical, emotional and both teams will leave it all on the ice. Wednesday's game has little-to-no impact on that fact.
The two teams may be on a collision course to meet each other for the gold medal on Feb. 20, but first USA must win its semifinal game. Group B will complete its games later Wednesday afternoon, but USA could face a rematch with Finland, barring an upset in its Group B matchup.
The good news for Team USA is that every time these two teams have met in both the preliminary and gold-medal round of international competition, the team that lost the first meeting won the gold medal.
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