COLUMN | After all the board-shivering deckage and the high-speed thwacking, the difference came down to a slow little trickler that may or may not have been a goal and a whistle that was either heard or not heard, depending on which side you talked to. Let’s face it: The U.S. and Canada women’s hockey teams were hardly in an agreeable place at the Sochi Olympics to begin with, and the argument just got tenser.

You wouldn’t have thought relations could become any higher-pitched between these two teams, who fight each other like tavern brawlers even in exhibition games and whose only competition for the gold medal would seem to be each other. But after Canada’s 3-2 victory in Wednesday’s Group A preliminary game, it all ratcheted up another notch in what is arguably the keenest rivalry at the Winter Olympics.

“This one is the real deal,” Canadian Coach Kevin Dineen said.

It was supposedly a meaningless game, just an appetizer, because both teams already had byes into the semifinals. But there was nothing casual about it as they shouldered each other into the walls and the momentum swung back and forth. The USA took a 1-0 lead into the third period, only to get blitzed by a fleet-skating Canadian team that mustered two goals in 93 seconds. It was the go-ahead one that left the Americans arguing.

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Canada star Hayley Wickenheiser struck a close-quarters shot at American goalie Jessie Vetter, who at first seemed to smother the puck with her body pads. But as Vetter was stretched across the ice for a long count, the puck slid lazily out from under her, gyroscoping, and then drifted into the goal. And that’s when accounts start to differ — widely.

As the celebratory sirens went off and the Canadians erupted, the Americans looked around confusedly. They had heard a whistle when the puck was still under Vetter, they contended — refs had blown the play dead.

“There was the shot and then the rebound, and I thought I had it with my body,” Vetter said afterward. “I heard a whistle, but I looked behind me and there was cheering.”

To which Canadian Meghan Agosta-Marciano countered, “That puck was in before the whistle.”

Coach Katey Stone told referee Anna Eskola of Finland to check the replay.

“I did hear the whistle before the puck went in,” Stone said. But on review it was ruled a goal. Stone asked rhetorically later, “What are you gonna do?”

American forward Hilary Knight said, “The whistle blows and they call it a goal? I don’t know what sport allows that.”

Who was right? Both and neither. Replays suggest the whistle indeed blew before the puck crossed the line, when it was still sort of spiraling around. By the letter of the law, it shouldn’t have counted. Then again, it also appeared to be a premature whistle, so the spirit of the referee’s call after the fact was probably right.

And in any case, Canada’s Agosta-Marciano pointed out, “You gotta play after the whistle.”

The fact was, the Canadian had outpaced the Americans throughout the third period, charging across the ice and constantly pressing them. “We let them get it,” Knight admitted.

The controversial goal swung the momentum to the Canadians, but it was the next one that kept it there. With 5 minutes 5 seconds left in the game, the Americans turned over the puck, and Agosta-Marciano turned it into a breakaway, dashing toward a frozen Vetter and splitting the goalie’s knee pads with the puck for a 3-1 lead.

It should have been over then — but when is it ever over between these two, who between them have won every Olympic and world championship contested in the women’s game and who call this their version of the Stanley Cup? The Americans pulled their goalie and made a desperate countercharge, and with 1:05 left Anne Schleper scored. Canada was penalized for too many players on the ice, and the Americans were still alive with a six-on-four advantage. They couldn’t make anything happen. Still, it was a positive end to a loss.

“I liked how we responded,” U.S. co-captain Julie Chu said. “It would have been easy to pack it in at 3-1. I liked our fight.”

This was the Canadians’ third consecutive Olympic victory over the Americans, counting the gold medal games in Vancouver and Salt Lake. If the recent past in the series is any indication, the Americans simply will use the loss to foster a sense of vengeance.

“It was typical USA-Canada; I would expect nothing else out of it,” Dineen said.

On the pre-Olympic exhibition tour this fall, the teams met seven times, with the Canadians winning the first three, only for the Americans to sting them back by taking the next four, two of which ended with dropped-sticks-and-gloves melees. With a three-day break before the semifinals, they have time to simmer.

“We’re not panicking,” Chu said

Said Knight: “It’s hard to have a day off. You’re itching. We’ll become a bigger, faster, stronger team.”

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