| USA TODAY Sports
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the women’s hockey teams from the United States and Canada, except where it matters. Rarely in sports is a rivalry so evenly matched, and yet the outcome so rarely in doubt.
Canada beat the U.S. again here on Thursday in the final game of pool play, just like it did at the last Olympics and the one before that and the one before that and the one before that. Oh, the games are always close, just as it was again here Thursday in a thrilling 2-1 final that ended with the U.S. on the doorstep of a tying goal a handful of times in the final two minutes alone. Should they play again for the gold medal next week, it will almost certainly go down the wire.
But at this point for the Canadians, who won four straight over the U.S. by a combined six goals in a December exhibition tour, every game against the only team that can realistically hope to beat them turns into an evaluation of the Americans’ psyche. And each time, the diagnosis remains the same: Canada is firmly planted in their heads.
“I think we put some doubt in the Canadians’ minds,” U.S. forward Amanda Kessel said, pulling that piece of analysis squarely from the Department of Wishful Thinking.
If anything, it’s the other way around. Because if the Americans couldn’t beat Canada this time when they had a 45-23 advantage in shots on goal, carried the flow of play for all three periods, got a penalty shot and had a Canadian goal wiped off the board for kicking it into the net, when exactly are they going to?
“We buried the chances we had,” said Team Canada forward Meghan Agosta, who scored the opening goal in the second period. “Do I think we have another level? Of course.”
There’s no doubt about the quality of this U.S. team. On a given day, with the right puck luck, it absolutely can beat Canada. In fact, it did pretty handily twice last November in the Four Nations Cup, breaking out with 4-2 and 5-1 victories.
But these are the Olympics, and we know what happens against Canada in the Olympics. Posts get hit. Passes into the slot slide under sticks. Power plays end with lots of puck movement and blasts from the point that go wide. Goalies stand on their head.
In Sochi, Canada beat the Americans twice by a goal, crushing their gold medal hopes in overtime. It’s lining up the same way now, and as random as hockey can look at times, there’s something to be said for beating one team the same way over and over again.
“I think we approach every game with a clean slate,” Team Canada forward Blayre Turnbull said. “Obviously we have some confidence moving forward, but they’re a very confident team too. The past is the past and we have to keep moving forward.”
That the U.S. team always plays well enough against Canada to have a chance is either the biggest reason to hope next time will be different, or it’s the ultimate tease.
It would be hard to watch this meeting and not lean toward the latter. Goaltender Genevieve Lacasse certainly had a lot to do with that, and maybe she (or whoever Canada puts in goal) won’t be quite as good next time. But for all the stellar skating the U.S. did, the game comes down to how well you can capitalize on opportunities.
Until proven otherwise, Canada has the luxury of knowing it can miss some and still win. With the U.S., every empty trip through the crease and every shot that goes whistling off target feels like it produces a tighter squeeze of the stick.
“I think today we showed that we’re both there, but we came out with the win and moving forward we can have confidence in our game,” Team Canada forward Natalie Spooner said. “We’ve trained six months for this and we’re ready. If we face them again, we’ll be ready again.”
Though the game ended with all kinds of traffic in front of Lacasse, some pushing and shoving at the buzzer and a couple shots in the final seconds that came within inches of beating her, this is still Canada’s tournament and a mental advantage over the Americans that is now well into its second decade.
That was never more evident than with 3:52 left in the second period and the U.S. down 2-0. After a Canadian player illegally covered the puck in the crease, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson got a penalty shot for the U.S. If there was ever a moment to put a small crack in the confidence of Team Canada, this was it.
But the move Lamoureux-Davidson put on — skating slowly down the left side, then pulling the puck between her skates in tight quarters — was too cute by half and turned into a rather easy save for Lacasse, who shot Lamoureux-Davidson a look afterwards as if to say, “That’s all you got?”
For now, it is. And the Americans only have one more chance to change it, which, given the history of this rivalry, sounds less like an opportunity and more like a recurring nightmare.