GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The scoreboard will tell you that the United States women’s hockey team lost to Canada 2-1 here Thursday afternoon, its fifth straight loss against its bitter rival. But to hear U.S. head coach Robb Stauber after the game, you perhaps would have thought the Americans had won.
Stauber was downright giddy about the Americans’ performance, pointing out that they outshot the Canadians 45-23, the third straight game in these Olympics that the Americans outshot their opponents by nearly a 2-1 margin.
“The obvious thing is we had one hell of a performance tonight,” Stauber said.
Or at least that was the message he was hoping would permeate through his locker room should the U.S. face Canada again, in a week, with Olympic gold on the line. Thursday, the Americans controlled possession for much of the game and at times dominated Canada, which has now won 23 straight Olympic matches since losing to the Americans in the gold-medal game in 1998.The problem was putting the puck in the net.
“Anybody who knows hockey knows if you’re going to keep doing that you’re going to get rewarded,” Stauber said, “and we expect the reward for our effort and being honest and sticking to our game plan. You don’t play the game not to get rewarded for doing the little things right. And we did the little things right.”
But Thursday the rewards didn’t come. Not in the first period, when the U.S. caught Canada on a change and Hilary Knight found herself one-on-one with Canadian goalie Genevieve Lacasse only to shoot the puck right into Lacasse’s chest. Not in the second period, when Jocelyn Lamourex-Davidson was awarded a penalty shot, went forehand, backhand, forehand, backhand and then watched her shot ricochet off the knob of Lacasse’s stick. Or later in the second when Brianna Decker rifled a slapshot past Lacasse that ricocheted off the outside of the post. And not in the third period, when the U.S. was frantically searching for an equalizer, but hit the crossbar. Or a few minutes later when Knight found herself alone in front of the net and couldn’t get a shot off on a beautiful centering pass.
“I just couldn’t swing and get something on it,” Knight said. “I’ll have to look at the video.”
When asked after the game if he was concerned about not being able to convert so many offensive chances, Stauber insisted he wasn’t. Five different times.
“No, no, nope, nope, no,” he said. “What else are you going to do? It’s one of the things you can control, your energy and effort and the things you practice. And pucks either end up over the line or they don’t.”
Added Lamourex-Davidson: “We had our opportunities. We have to get our sticks there. We got our bodies there, but we have to get our sticks. There are five or six goals that we have to figure out how to put in the net.”
It was poetic, in a murky sort of way, that the game ended with a pile of bodies pushing, shoving, kicking and clawing in front of the Canadian goal. It had been a physical, chippy, hard-fought game that would end with the puck on the ice, just inches in front of the Canadian goal.
But for all the shoves and elbows, the contest was at the same time a shining showcase for the beauty of the women’s game played at the highest level. Back and forth, up and down, great passing, hard hitting, excellent goaltending, busy sticks on defense. Everything everyone would expect from the two best women’s hockey teams in the world.
Both of Canada’s goals came in an eight-minute span in the second period, Meghan Agosta first taking a pass from Natalie Sponner and flicking a wrister off U.S. goalie Maddie Rooney’s left pad and into the net. Sarah Nurse followed up that goal with a howitzer to the top shelf, finding the one corner of net that was exposed between Rooney’s shoulder, facemask and the post. Twenty-three seconds into the third Kendal Coyne put the Americans on the board with a laser of her own, but that’s where the scoring would end.
The Canadians appeared to take a 3-1 lead amid chants of “USA-USA,” but a goal by Haley Irwin was called back when replay revealed she had kicked the puck into the net with her skate.
With the victory, Canada wins Group A and advances to Monday’s semifinals along with the U.S., which finished with the second most points in group play despite Thursday’s loss. Finland, Switzerland, Sweden and the Olympic Athletes from Russia will duke it out for the other two semifinal spots.
Most everyone expects a U.S.-Canada final, just as it has been for four of the past five Olympic Games. Amanda Kessel said after Thursday’s game that the U.S. did enough to at least put a bit of doubt into the minds of the Canadians. Kendall Coyne agreed, suggesting the U.S. would take that game 10 times out of 10. “We just have to find a way,” she said. “I know it sounds redundant.”
And then there is their coach, who believes his team is on the cusp of a breakout. The question is whether or not it will come in the next week.
“I have no doubt our players will be rewarded for their energy and effort,” Stauber said. “No doubt.”