Unstoppable Canada wins gold, breaks US hearts again

Teammates Angela Ruggiero, left and Karen Thatcher of Blaine hug after the U.S. lost the Olympic gold medal  2-0 to Canada in women's hockey Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010, at Canada Hockey Place in Vancouver.
Teammates Angela Ruggiero, left and Karen Thatcher of Blaine hug after the U.S. lost the Olympic gold medal 2-0 to Canada in women's hockey Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010, at Canada Hockey Place in Vancouver. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

VANCOUVER B.C. – An hour after winning its third gold medal in as many Olympics, the Canadian women's hockey made its way to center ice at Canada Hockey Place with champagne and beer in hand, medals around their necks, looking to celebrate a piece of history.

Just like the U.S. women's team, the Zamboni driver had to wait to finish the job.

Canada become the fifth women's team in Olympic history to claim three successive gold medals on Thursday, Feb. 25, skating past an upset-minded American team 2-0 at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Marie-Philip Poulin scored both goals in the first period and Shannon Szabados made 28 mostly spectacular saves to lead the Canadians to top spot in the world.

"I looked up in the stands and saw a sign that said, 'Proud to be a Canadian,'" Szabados said. "That's what I am today."

It was a disappointing end to the Olympics for Team USA, which came into the game as the underdog despite starting the Winter Games as the world's No. 1-ranked team. The Americans, so brilliant on power play opportunities throughout the tournament, failed to convert on all six of their chances against Canada and couldn't solve Szabados' stellar net play.

"You come here hoping to compete for a gold and we got that opportunity," U.S. forward Karen Thatcher of Blaine said. "We didn't come out of here with that, but we did win silver. It was a great hockey game. They're a great team. We're a great team.

"It's a one-game season between the two top teams in the world. We didn't come out on the side we wanted to, but we'll be ready in four years."

Unfortunately, that's become a familiar refrain for Team USA over the years. The Americans won gold in 1998 at the Nagano Games during the sport's inaugural Olympics, but has been looking up to the Canadians since then. Canada knocked off the U.S. on its home soil in the gold medal game at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, and four years ago it had to settle for bronze after being upset by Sweden in the semifinals in Turin.

The U.S. put together an impressive run through these Olympics, easily dispatching China and Russia during pool play and then wearing out the Swedes in the semifinals to get back to the gold medal game for the first time in eight years. But Canada had an answer for every American shot on Thursday, whether it came with a thud when Szabados made a glove save or the clack of a stick as the Canadians poked the puck away.

"Waking up this morning, I think we were all hoping and thinking we were going to win the gold today," U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero said while holding back tears. "But hats off to Canada. They did what they needed to do to win the game."

The U.S. survived a mad rush at the goal by Canada early on in the first period and looked to be a position to hush the boisterous crowd at Canada Hockey Place when a body checking penalty gave the Americans their first power play chance about halfway through, but it didn’t turn out that way.

In fact it completely backfired.

Szabados made two glove saves of U.S. shots from point-blank range, giving the Canadians a huge shot of confidence, and 30 seconds after the power play came to an end Poulin flipped the puck up and over the glove of U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter to give her team a 1-0 lead. Clearly frustrated at the turn of events, the U.S. appeared to tighten up and started to scramble to keep pace with its rival.

Three minutes later, the Americans enjoyed another power play opportunity, but instead of finding the equalizer once again it blew up in their faces. U.S. forward Jinelle Zaugg-Siergie got called for a penalty just 36 seconds into the power play to make it a 4-on-4 play and Canada won the face off in the American end to set up Poulin's second goal. She fired the puck past Vetter from near the top of the face-off circle to set off a fist-pumping celebration by the Canadians.

With Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, hockey icon Wayne Gretzky, and actor Michael J. Fox cheering from the stands along with about 17,000 ramped-up fans, the sea of red and white hockey jerseys started to feel like the weight of the world on the Americans shoulders.

"It's a tough pill to swallow right now," U.S. forward Natalie Darwitz said. "We got into this situation and we didn't execute tonight. I think overall we worked hard. We just didn't get a lot done in just working hard. The effort was there, I liked our team's intensity, but we just weren't as on as I hoped we would be.

"When you get down 2-0 against a team like Canada in their home building then the crowd becomes a factor. I think that made it a little more tough for us."

It there were any positives to take out of the game for the Americans, it might be that the caliber of play both teams displayed should help to elevate the sport to a wider audience. The women's teams faced heavy criticism in recent weeks for the tournament's lack of competitiveness during pool play, but both medal games on Thursday were exciting, tight contests between four highly skilled teams. In the bronze medal game, Finland beat Sweden 3-2 in overtime.

"That was a fast, high-tempo, high-skill game," Thatcher said. "It was great to be a part of it and great to watch. I'm hoping it helps the sport grow a little bit."

Like the rest of her teammates, the Blaine resident was obviously disappointed to be wearing a silver medal around her neck as she came off the ice instead of the gold. She was one of 15 new faces on the Americans Olympic roster this year and finished with three goals and three assists. Canada's Meghan Agosta was named the tournament's most valuable player after scoring nine goals and collecting six assists.

The gold was the fourth Olympic medal for four members of the Canadian team, and for three others it was their third gold. Among the four-time medalists was Canadian standout Hayley Wickenheiser, who is the all-time points leader for women's hockey at the Olympics with 46. The women's team is the first team to win Olympic gold on Canadian soil in the country's history.

"It's so special," Wickenheiser said. "I don't know if it's sunk in yet. You grow up in Canada, you know the expectations. Just to win on home ice in front of this crowd and in front of friends and family is amazing."

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