BRAMPTON, Ont. -- The greatest rivalry in women’s hockey – and one of the fiercest in all of sports – was on display again Monday night before 4,322 entertained, bewildered fans at the CAA Centre.
The final preliminary round game for both Canada and the United States ended up with the host side coming out on top in a 4-3 shootout. But the spectacular play of netminders Ann-Renee Desbiens and Aerin Frankel over a breathtaking nine rounds of alternating shooters doesn’t encapsulate the full picture.
In what had been tightly contested affair over regulation time, Canadian forward Laura Stacey appeared to seal the game with an empty-net insurance goal, with 2:27 remaining in the third period, putting her team ahead 3-1. A follow-up apparent goal by teammate Sarah Fillier was disallowed for goaltender interference.
Then, when American star forward Hilary Knight found space between Desbiens’ pads to bring the Americans back to within a goal, chaos ensued, both on and off the ice.
First, the lights on the scoreboard at the CAA Centre in Brampton had all dimmed, meaning no one in the building other than the game timekeeper knew how many seconds were left on the clock when Knight scored. After much coordination between the game officials, 39 seconds appeared on the re-illuminated board.
Then, Team Canada coach Troy Ryan challenged the play for offside, but to no avail.
Completing the comeback, an onslaught by the United States towards the end of regulation led to the tying goal by Amanda Kessel,with 3.4 seconds left in regulation.
Just your typical Canada-USA game, eh?
Three-on-three overtime did not resolve the stalemate, despite Canada being awarded a power play when Knight hooked Captain Canada herself, Marie-Philip Poulin.
On to the shootout, when both initial shooters for each team scored: Brianne Jenner of Oakville, Ont. and Knight of Sun Valley, Idaho.
From then on, it was a goaltender’s duel between the pipes, with Desbiens and Frankel trading save for save.
Knight was actually picked to shoot two other times, whiffing on her final attempt in the ninth round as she lost control of the puck. The misfire opened the door for utility forward Jamie Lee Rattray to end the game with a spectacular backhand move, prompting an ecstatic celebration from the red and white home crowd.
“A lot obviously happened there at the end,“ coach Troy Ryan told reporters after the hard-fought for victory. “But it’s exciting to me; I think it was a great game," Ryan said. "That sequence of events is a little different; it’s a unique one for us for sure. But if you look at the bench it was pretty calm. It’s actually a proud moment when you’re sitting on the bench and things just fall into place.”
Knight was named Player of the Game for the United States, and Desbiens – celebrating her 29th birthday – was awarded the honour for Canada.
“A hockey game is never over until it’s over, and I guess we saw it today,” Desbiens said after leading Canada to the preliminary round win. “I’m really proud of how we reacted in overtime, how we kept going and didn’t let (the blown lead) drag us down and still found a way to win. This team is very resilient.”
Right off the game’s opening face off, the United States carried much of the momentum. After Canadian defender Claire Thompson took a delay of game penalty, Hannah Bilka wired a shot past Desbiens on the ensuing power play, opening the scoring.
Canada responded less than four minutes later. Sarah Nurse took the puck hard to the net, and although Frankel made the initial save, Sarah Fillier was on the doorstep to get the equalizer, regaining some of the mojo for her team.
The second period with the teams deadlocked at a goal apiece, and it was during this middle frame that undisciplined penalties began to haunt the Americans. Rory Guilday and Kelly Pannek took successive tripping infractions, giving Canada a five-on-three advantage, on which it gleefully capitalized.
Yet again, it was Poulin finding the net, taking a feed from Erin Ambrose and unleashing a laser shot just under the crossbar behind a helpless Frankel.
Moments later, with Guilday out of the box and Canada still up by one attacker, Thompson rang a shot off the goal post. Canada headed into the second intermission with a 2-1 lead, and protected the cushion for much of the third period, even netting the insurance marker by Stacey before the Americans’ comeback.
Despite the loss for the United States, coach Joel Wroblewski praised his team’s perseverance.
“You talk about the heart and soul of a team and the spirit of a team, and from the goaltender out, I thought that there’s so much inspiring play from our group that they wouldn’t quit,” Joel Johnson said in the media scrum after the tough but close loss to his team's biggest rival.
Canada finished the preliminary round with 11 points to take top spot in Group A, with the United States finishing in second, one point in arrears. Both teams get two days off before preparing for Thursday’s quarter-final match-ups.
Barring the unexpected, the North American powerhouses are expected to duel for the gold medal. Fans can only hope for the championship game on Sunday, April 16 to be played with the same intensity and drama as witnessed during the preliminary round.