March 10, 2014

From NEHJ: American women's golden dreams dashed

The Team USA women were four minutes away from gold in Sochi, before it all slipped away in a dramatic finish. (Getty Images)

By Mike Zhe

It was a story sure to be celebrated in these parts for years to come.

As the clock ticked down under four minutes in the gold-medal game of the Olympic women’s hockey tournament in Sochi, Russia, last month, it was a U.S. team loaded with local products sitting in the most enviable of positions.

Thanks to a second-period goal by team captain Meghan Duggan (Danvers, Mass.), the face of the American team in the months leading up to the game, and another in the third period, when young gun Alex Carpenter (North Reading, Mass./Boston College) finished off a heady pass from Hilary Knight (Hanover, N.H.), the lead over Canada was 2-0. The finish line was in sight.

Three minutes and 59 seconds left … 3:58 left … 3:57 left …

The Americans, under Harvard coach Katey Stone (Watertown, Conn.) had seemed to make all the right moves to that point, going back months. Setting up headquarters in the Boston area, practicing and training at the Edge Sports Center in Bedford,, Mass., and scrimmaging local junior and boys prep teams, they headed to Sochi a cohesive, confident bunch.

Of the seven pre-Olympic games against Canada, the U.S. won the last four. One of those was a Dec. 20 battle in Grand Forks, N.D., that featured a brawl at the end of the game. That game also featured new Canadian coach Kevin Dineen, who was hired after Dan Church resigned unexpectedly just two months before the Games.

American Hilary Knight (Hanover, N.H.) and Canadian Meghan Agosta-Marciano battle for the puck during the gold medal game. (Getty Images)

Comprised of an almost even split of veterans who’d lost the gold-medal game to Canada in Vancouver in 2010, and young newcomers who are some of the country’s top college stars, there seemed to be an ideal mix of speed and skill, enthusiasm and motivation on the U.S. side.

“Obviously, losing in Vancouver was really tough,” said defenseman Kacey Bellamy (Westfield, Mass./New Hampshire), a veteran of 2010. “That’s been our motivation every single day, is that gold medal.”

The local products on Team USA included four-time Olympian Julie Chu (Fairfield, Conn./Harvard), who would later be chosen to be the U.S. flag-bearer at the Closing Ceremony, backup goalie Molly Schaus (Natick, Mass./BC) and forward Kelli Stack (BC) among the veterans; and forward Kendall Coyne (Northeastern) and defenseman Michelle Picard (Taunton, Mass./Harvard) among the newcomers.

 Even a 3-2 loss to the Canadians in pool play had silver linings, the biggest one being the Americans needed only to win a semifinal game to earn a rematch with Canada for the gold.

The U.S. wasn’t expected to have much trouble in its semifinal against Sweden and didn’t, getting first-period goals by Carpenter, Bellamy and Amanda Kessel en route to a 6-1 win. Now, finally, all the focus, all the motivation collected since the 2010 loss in Vancouver could be channeled toward, really, the only game most fans and media had been focusing on throughout.

“This is why we came here, to play in this game,” said Coyne after the semifinal win.

Boston College star Alex Carpenter (North Reading, Mass.) celebrates her third-period goal in the gold medal game against Canada. Carpenter beat Shannon Szabados to give the Americans a 2-0 lead early in the third. (Getty Images)

Locked in a scoreless tie midway through the second period, and coming off a strong penalty kill, the Americans struck first. Jocelyne Lamoureux carried the puck in on the left and dropped a pass for the oncoming Duggan, whose wrister from the dot found the top far corner for a 1-0 lead.

The U.S. killed off a 5-on-3 late in the period and then got a huge goal from Carpenter early in the third, setting up on the right doorstep and redirecting a perfect Knight pass for a 2-0 lead. The elusive gold medal, absent from American view since 1998, was starting to come into clear view.

With nine minutes to play and the Canadians starting to buzz, Bellamy extended fully, diving to poke a puck back across center ice and defuse a threat. Eight minutes left … seven minutes left … six minutes …

With 3:26 left to play, the Canadians finally got their break — and their second wind. Brianne Jenner took a shot from to left circle that clipped Bellamy in the leg and redirected past goalie Jessie Vetter (28 saves).

Three minutes to play … two minutes to play …

With a little over a minute left and the Canadian net empty, the U.S. got a break when the puck hit an official and came to Stack at her own blue line. The former BC star got a good whack on it and sent it toward the vacant goal, where it nudged the left post and was then cleared away.

“When those types of things happen in the game of hockey, you begin to wonder if it’s your night,” said Stone.

“It would have given us a bigger cushion,’’ said Stack. “I’ve done that once before in college and it’s the worst feeling in the world.”

It would have been merely a footnote. But with the clock ticking down under a minute, Boston University star Marie-Philip Poulin — who has one year of college eligibility remaining — took a pass from behind the net in front and beat Vetter to send the game to an improbable overtime.

Skating 4-on-4 in sudden-death, penalties would push the game to its climax. A Stack rush resulted in a penalty to Canada’s Catherine Ward, but Lamoureux was called for slashing on a rebound try just six seconds later to end the power play.

With the sides skating 3-on-3, Hayley Wickenheiser got free for a breakaway after a bad line change and was knocked to the ice by Knight, drawing a penalty. Poulin was the one who ended the game 39 seconds later, setting off a massive celebration on the ice as the Americans could only watch and wonder.

“Great hockey games come down to inches, bounces of the puck,” Stone said. “That’s hockey.”

“We had them at the end, up two goals,” Duggan told NBC’s Pierre McGuire afterward. “They just pressed us hard and a couple bounces went their way.”

Knight (3-3-6), Kessel (3-3-6), Coyne (2-4-6) and Brianna Decker (2-4-6) shared the scoring lead for Team USA in the tournament, with Knight, Kessel and defenseman Megan Bozek getting named to the All-Tournament team.

Chu, playing in almost certainly her final Games, finished with an assist in five games. Former Northeastern goalie Florence Schelling of bronze-medalist Switzerland was named tournament MVP after making 253 saves in six games.

For the U.S. players, it was a memorable story that began with selection camp back in June in Lake Placid, N.Y., that crafted a 25-player roster that would be trimmed to 21 on New Year’s Day. The only thing they’d rewrite was the final chapter.

“Proud of what we did this year, proud of the effort we put forth today, proud to be an American,” said Duggan. “At some point, we’ll be proud of these silver medals.”

Twitter: @MikeZhe603