Victory was close enough to start clock-watching, to sneak a peek at the digits ticking down and wonder why the time seemed to be passing so slowly. It was close enough to picture in your mind that first glint of gold, to wonder what your first move should be in the inevitable celebration — raise the arms? toss the gloves? hug the goalie? — and close enough to imagine the headlines: “Team USA Women Finally Beat Canada For Olympic Gold.”

The U.S. women’s hockey team had a two-goal lead late in the third period and then a one-goal lead, and then, with under 90 seconds left, it was almost a two-goal lead again, the difference coming down to the width of a goal post of an empty net. And then, with less than a minute to go, the lead was gone.

Finally and suddenly, the puck was past the American goalie again, and it was all gone: the lead, the tie, the game, the gold medal, the headlines, the legacies. It had all vanished in a blur of near-misses and bad bounces and big mistakes, and now the Canadians, winners by a 3-2 margin in overtime, were dancing and hugging and wearing Olympic gold medals around their necks on the ice of the Bolshoy Ice Dome.

And the Americans were standing off to the side, crying, holding their faces in their hands, staring at their skates, trying to hold themselves erect, occasionally lifting a teammate back up when they doubled over in anguish.

“We were up by two goals,” U.S. forward Kelli Stack would say later, “so it’s just heartbreaking and shocking we didn’t win the game. It’s just like a dream.”

101 mph148.1 feet148.1 feet
37 mph54.3 feet54.3 feet
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Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)

If it had been anybody but the hated Canadians, the Americans’ archrivals since the birth of the sport, who had done this to them, it might not have hurt so badly. If it had been anyone but her — Canada’s Marie-Philip Poulin, hero of the gold medal game in Vancouver four years earlier, who scored both the tying goal with less than a minute remaining in regulation and the winner 8 minutes 10 seconds into overtime Thursday night — it might have been easier to swallow.

And if defeat had happened in any way other than this — with a two-goal lead squandered in the final 3:26 of regulation, then a penalty-marred overtime that ended with Poulin scoring a power-play goal past U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter — the Americans might have been able to live with these silver medals that now are destined for desk drawers and closets instead.

“It’ll take time, I think,” American defenseman Gigi Marvin said, struggling to compose herself, as were several of her teammates. “Yeah, I don’t know. We focused so much, and it’s tough to . . . it’s just tough.”

The Americans had built their 2-0 lead on goals by Meghan Duggan in the second period and Alex Carpenter two minutes into the third, and they had protected it for more than 14 minutes, until the game was down to a few more shifts, a few more minutes. History was in the making; the U.S. team had won the first Olympic gold medal in 1998, only to watch the Canadians take the next three, often at the Americans’ expense. Redemption was close enough now to taste.

“Leading up to this game, we talked a lot about how this time it felt like our team was different,” Stack said. “We thought a lot about the ’98 team and not having won gold since then, and we wanted to be the team to bring the gold medal back.”

With 3:26 left in the game, Canada’s Brianne Jenner sliced through the U.S. defense and fired a shot that appeared to be heading several feet wide of the net when it deflected off the leg of U.S. defenseman Kacey Bellamy, past Vetter and into the net to cut the lead in half. On the U.S. bench, Coach Katey Stone clapped her hands and yelled “Let’s go!” to her players, trying to keep their spirits up.

When the clock reached 1:35, the Canadians pulled their goalie, and seconds later, Stack’s empty-net try from the far blue line slid down the ice, headed toward the left side of the net, only to clang into the goal post and die there.

“Bad luck,” Stack said. “I feel like every bounce went their way. It’s tough.”

Thirty seconds later, with the clock now inside a minute to play, Poulin gathered in a rebound on the doorstep and scored past Vetter. Tie game.

Inside the near-capacity arena, roughly a third of the crowd screamed and rejoiced for Canada, another third stood in stunned silence for the Americans’ lost lead and the final third — neutral Russians — simply basked in the amazing display of hockey taking place before their eyes.

Difficult as it was to regain their composure for the overtime, the Americans went to the locker room and did just that. “When you think you’ve given your all,” Hilary Knight said she told her teammates, “give a little bit more.”

The Americans had the first chances in the four-on-four overtime, crashing the net and making Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados work for every save. The teams traded penalties and traded scoring chances. Finally, Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser got free on a breakaway, and Knight caught her from behind, making contact that either dragged Wickenheiser down — or gave her license to dive. Whatever the case, the referee called a penalty.

“No comment,” Stone said of the penalty call.

On the ensuing four-on-three, Canada worked the puck around expertly until it was on Poulin’s stick. When the puck went into the net, Vetter dropped her stick, kicked it into the right corner and left it there.

From the slopes to the sidelines to a karaoke bar, Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise shares his most memorable moments covering the Winter Olympics so far. (Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)

The dislike the Canadians and Americans feel for each other is not of the cartoonish, theatrical type preferred by athletic rivals who feel an obligation to entertain as well as compete. This is real, visceral and consuming. And so, as Canada’s players came surging over the boards to celebrate another championship, it may very well have been a toss-up as to what was more satisfying for them: hugging their own teammates in victory or watching the Americans slink off the ice in defeat.

Said Wickenheiser: “We felt, as a team, we had an edge in conditioning and mental toughness.”

The Americans grabbed their knees, as if they were going to vomit or cry or pass out. They wiped their eyes with the tails of their sweaters. They formed a line, grudgingly, to shake the hands of the victors.

When the handing out of medals was taking too long, the Canadian part of the crowd broke into an a capella “O, Canada.” And when the flags were raised and the music played, they sang it again, with Canada’s players joining in, full-throated and grinning.

And the Americans had no choice but to stand there and take it. The clock hadn’t ticked down fast enough for them. The goal post gave them no lucky kick. And now, in tears and in shock, the Americans had no escape.