How Team Canada denied a team that would not be denied

Clutch performance earns Marie-Philip Poulin a place beside Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal

Team Canada celebrates their 3-2 victory over the United States. (Petr David Josek, AP Photo)

Team Canada celebrates their 3-2 victory over the United States. (Petr David Josek, AP Photo)

There is an advantage, it turns out, to holding an Olympic women’s hockey tournament in Russia. When you win and win big, they let you celebrate as you please. Nobody blinks when you light up a Monte Cristo, or snap open a tall-boy.

So when the scent of Cuban broad-leaf wafted through the lower concourse of the Bolshoy Ice Palace on Thursday night, the guardians of public welfare (do they have those here?) were nowhere to be seen. They might have been outside having a smoke.

Here’s hoping Marie-Philip Poulin was the source of the aromatic haze. Because few players in Canada’s rich hockey history have lifted their country so high, from such depths, so quickly.

It seems a blur now, and maybe it always will. Down 2-0, with a few minutes left on the clock, the reigning Olympic champions looked spent. They were locked out of prime scoring areas. They were being systematically smothered by a U.S. team that  had had enough of Canadian presumption when it came to hockey. This time, the Americans would not be denied.

Then, a force-of-will goal by grinding forward Brianne Jenner with 3:26 to go yanked Canada back into the game, and it was as if they’d been given smelling salts. Coach Kevin Dineen pulled his goaltender for an extra attacker, and Poulin’s line set up in the U.S. zone. With 55 seconds remaining, the 22-year-old from Beaceville, Que. took a centreing pass from Rebecca Johnston and knifed the puck past Team U.S.A. goaltender Jesse Vetter.

Overtime lasted seven and a-half heart-stopping minutes before Canada got a four-on-three power-play. At 8:10, it was Poulin again, gathering up a feed from defenceman Laura Fortino and whipping the rolling puck over the right pad of the lunging U.S. goaltender. With that, Poulin braced for the inevitable pile-on—first Hayley Wickenheiser, then Meghan Agosta. Then Johnston and Fortino and the first celebrants to jump off the bench.

Within seconds the entire team was tangled in the corner—a big red heap of gold-medal merriment.

“Being here, with this jersey on and the gold medal around my neck, it’s the best thing ever,” Poulin said after the game. When asked about the overtime goal, she added: “I could hear the bench shouting to shoot the puck—it was a four-on-three, so really, we just had to get the puck on the net. It went in and I’m just so happy.”

On the U.S. side? Scenes of agony. Defenceman Michelle Picard doubled over as she’d been gut-punched. Vetter lying slumped to the ice, stunned.

It’s impossible to process the Canadian triumph in the absence of U.S. misery are consistently rated as their equals. The destinies of these two teams are intertwined, and for the Americans, at the Winter Games at least, seldom in a good way. Canada has not lost a game in Olympic competition since 1998, when it dropped a pair to the Americans, logging 19 straight wins. Its 17-10 record against the U.S. in world championship and Olympic games has been no less impressive given how closely matched the teams have been during the past decade and a half.

That’s all history, of course, but it mattered on Thursday in ways you don’t always see in sports. Frustrated through three straight Olympiads, the Americans had scented blood this time—especially after Canada’s coach, Dan Church, was let go in December with little in the way of public explanation. In an tune-up series that featured two gloves-on brawls, Canada seemed disorganized, and the U.S. won the last three games.

Critics wondered if Dineen, recently fired from his coaching job with the Florida Panthers, was the right fit for a group of female hockey players.

Yet by the time they got to Sochi, things had changed. After a few games against junior and midget-aged male teams, the Canadians had begun to buy into what Dineen was saying. They opened the tournament with a convincing 5-0 win against the Swiss, followed by a 3-0 win over Finland that flattered the losing side—Canada got 48 shots on a hot goaltender.

Then, to widespread surprise, they stung the Americans in their last game of the preliminary round with a 3-2 win. And the Americans were clearly upset. When it became clear the two sides would meet again in the gold-medal game, U.S forward Kelli Stack spoke brashly about exploiting weaknesses she perceived against the Canadians. “Their D is pretty shaky back there when you give them a lot of pressure,” she said. “If we end up playing Canada on Thursday we’re going to try the U.S. forecheck as best we can and make them turn pucks over below the goal line.”

On paper, the teams looked like opposites. The Americans entered the game with 20 goals in four games, more than any team in the tournament. One in 10 of their shots had sailed past opposing goaltenders, while their power play was firing at an astonishing 35.71 conversion rate.

Canada, meanwhile, was the Games’ stingiest team, allowing just three goals in four games, with both netminders, Shannon Szabados and Charline Labonte, boasting save percentage rates above 95. And the Canadians had experienced trouble scoring. In their semi-final against Switzerland, the eventual fourth-place team, they pelted goaltender Florence Schelling with 48 shots yet squeezed out only a 3-1 win.

Through much of Thursday’s game, the Americans fulfilled Stack’s predictions.

Goaltender Shannon Szabados bailed Canada out a couple of times in the first period, making a glove-hand save off hard-shooting U.S. defenceman Anne Schleper less than three minutes into the game. She followed it up with by a brilliant pad stop during a goalmouth scramble.

Then, at 11:57 of the second period, U.S. captain Meghan Duggan took a pass from Jocelyne Lamoureux and snapped a shot over Szabados’s left shoulder. The Americans then killed off a brief 5-on-3 power play, and when Alex Carpenter one-timed a pass into the net two minutes into the third, U.S. victory began to feel inevitable to everyone in the building.

Everyone, that is, except the Canadian players.

“I don’t think we ever had doubt in that dressing room,” said Fortino. “Our veterans just help us stay so calm and poised and confident that we can come back. We have the skill and the talent. And we just have that never-give-up attitude.”

Carpenter, the U.S. forward, acknowledged that she and her teammates might have taken its foot off the gas, thinking they could protect their lead through the final few minutes. “We kind of let down defensively a little bit. We let in two soft goals. It’s kind of hard to explain. We didn’t play as well defensively as we had all game.”

As for Poulin, she must experienced some deja vu. She was the hero four years ago, after all—an 18-year-old ingenue who scored scored both goals in a 2-0 gold-medal win over the U.S., and assumed she would never experience anything quite like she did in Vancouver. Alas, she was forced to issue a public apology for her part in a beer-and-stogie celebration after the game at Olympic Hockey Place (now Rogers Arena).

This time, she planned to take advantage of Russian customs without fear of repercussions. Her clutch performance here merits a place beside Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal, or Paul Henderson’s clincher in ’72. Which is why her coach offered the sort of praise reserved for true competitors. “She doesn’t speak a lot,” said Dineen. “But I’ll catch her eyes, and there’s something there that tells you this is a big-game player.”

Hard to put a price on that. But if it means tolerating a little cigar smoke every four years, then surely Canada’s getting a bargain.

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