GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Goaltender Genevieve Lacasse was not visible amid the mess of Americans and Canadians around her, wrestling first for the puck, which the Americans had pushed to within inches of tying the game, then with each other, when the horn rang and the Canadians had won. In a blur of limbs and shoves, two players went to the ground. Referees separated the others. That — the physical, tense, routine chaos through which Canada held on to a 2-1 preliminary-round victory — is USA-Canada in a nutshell.
The result didn’t matter to either team’s progress through the Olympic tournament, but neither team will admit this. One game at a time, they say. All of these games matter.
But one game at a time is roughly how these teams measure every four years. They play for the gold medal. Whoever wins moves straight to defending. Whoever doesn’t — and in every Games since 2002, the United States hasn’t — slides into agonizing reevaluation.
So that the Americans outshot the Canadians, 45-23, is important because they know they can perforate the defense in the gold medal game. That the Canadians won anyway matters because they have won five straight games against the Americans.
“We’re not going to make too much of it,” U.S. veteran Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson said.
“I think it puts us in a spot as far as confidence goes,” Canadian coach Laura Schuler said.
While neither has locked up a spot in the gold medal game yet, both long since secured byes to the semifinals. The United States had outscored two opponents, 8-1, entering Thursday’s pool play finale. The Canadians’ margin was 9-1. When they talk about “making too much of it” or the state of their confidence, neither side is thinking about the next game. They are talking about the next time they play each other, which would come in the gold medal game.
Those games are all-consuming for all involved, and the careers of all involved are inextricably linked because of them. These players have played against each other since their early days, with and against each other in college, against each other a few times a year in every year of their national team careers. When they look across the ice, they see mutual friends and long-standing enemies.
Four Americans and five Canadians played college hockey at Wisconsin. Twenty players combined played in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. They’ve run into each other in Frozen Fours and World Championships and everywhere else.
In a burgeoning sport with a small upper class, the overlap is inevitable and complicated. Stories about the biggest moments in this rivalry — such as the United States’ blown two-goal lead in the gold medal game in Sochi — are always emotional ones.
“It’s what we live for,” U.S. forward Amanda Kessel said. “The intensity is there every single shift.”
It took less than eight minutes Thursday before a scrum in front of the net required players to be separated. Two minutes later, Canadian assistant captain Meghan Agosta ended up in the penalty box for shoving Meghan Duggan into the boards, an offense so obvious she skated straight to the box when play stopped.
“It’s pretty physical, but that’s what you expect. That’s why you train,” said U.S. forward Hilary Knight, who saw a few strong scoring chances just miss in the third. “That’s why you do all the preparation off the ice, to have it translate on the ice.”
When Agosta scored the game’s first goal — finding a pass in front of the net opened by the distractions wrought by her teammates — she pumped her fists and looked to the sky. Such is the emotion tied to every second of these games, that 28 minutes without a lead feels like years.
The Canadian high when Sarah Nurse scored another goal to open up the lead was equaled only by the U.S. high when Kendall Coyne beat four Canadians to bring the Americans within one. The screams reverberating around Kwandong Hockey Centre as both sides fought for the puck in those final seconds made it seem as if a medal was on the line. The aftermath indicated the players felt it, too.
“You have to perform under all conditions. You can’t let it get in your head,” Duggan said. “We’re mentally trained and mentally fresh and ready to go.”
The Canadians will carry the confidence if these teams meet next week. The Americans will carry the doubt. They have now lost five straight games to the Canadians, despite winning the past four World Championship gold medals. Those medals do matter. But the one they’ll play for here, the one with the power to write this history of a rivalry that so affects the history of those in it, simply matters more.
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