February 20, 2014 at 1:00 am

'We didn't finish the job': American women suffer agonizing hockey loss

Canada celebrates its 3-2 win in overtime in the women's hockey gold medal game on Thursday. (Mark Reis / MCT)

Sochi, Russia — In a defeat shrouded in rare bitterness, Canada beat the USA in women’s hockey Thursday, 3-2 in overtime, after the Americans led for all but 3 minutes, 26 seconds of regulation before yielding to a catastrophic series of unfortunate bounces and a questionable call by the referee.

With the Americans up 2-0 approaching the 17-minute mark of the third period, Canadian forward Brianne Jenner attempted a pass from behind the USA net. It struck an American defenseman on the knee and bounced directly behind goaltender Jessie Vetter, who stood no chance.

Two minutes later, after Canada pulled its goaltender, USA forward Kelli Stack attempted to clear the puck up the boards from inside her zone. It hit a linesman and deflected toward the middle of the ice.

Fluttering like some large black butterfly, it traveled the unusually snowy late-period ice in the Bolshoy Ice Dome toward the empty Russian net, as if in slow motion.

It struck the far goal post, squarely.

The Canadians recovered the puck and rushed it back up ice with the clock running down.

Again from behind the net, forward Laura Fortino attempted a centering pass. This time, Vetter pushed her stick out, in a vain attempt to intercept it.

Instead, she tipped the puck to Marie-Philip Poulin, who had scored two of the three Canadian goals in the past two gold medal games.

Poulin made it three of four.

With 55 seconds left, Canada had tied it.

In sudden death overtime, the USA finally appeared to get a break. Canadian defenseman Catherine Ward was whistled off for cross-checking at 6:09.

USA coach Katey Stone called timeout and drew up a plan.

But six seconds into the power play, after Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados stopped and froze a heavy shot, Jocelyne Lamoureaux was whistled for slashing Szabados

Lamoureaux hit the netminder on a leg pad with the blade of her stick.

It was the equivalent of a tap.

Stone and the other American coaches hollered. Veteran hockey writers at Canadian newspapers immediately tweeted their opinion it was a ghastly call by British referee Joy Tottman.

The best that could be said for Tottman was she was making up for having not called American captain Meghan Duggan for slashing Szabados earlier. But such makeup calls in overtime are verboten, especially in gold medal games.

Duggan got her money’s worth on what was clearly an infraction that might well have led to a fight in the NHL. But, Tottman had called no penalty.

One second after Ward returned to the ice and the Canadians went to a power play, Poulin scored again during some scattered play in the American zone.

It was as if the so-called hockey gods had been delayed in a bar somewhere, perhaps Canada, and not minding the game.

Asked about the series of enormously fortunate bounces, along with what clearly was a bad call, Jenner invoked the gods, who are said to imbue hockey with an uncommon degree of fairness.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it was the hockey gods.”

Kevin Dineen, who may have erred in pulling his goaltender before the faceoff was won in the American zone, complimented the USA after the game.

“To be a good athlete, team, whatever it is,” said the former NHL player hired to coach Canada just before the Olympics, “you have to have a worthy opponent.”

Stone was courteous in defeat.

“This was a great hockey game,” she said. “We certainly put ourselves in a spot to win it.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t finish the job.”

As is the Olympic tradition, the American players were made to stand on the ice for nearly 30 minutes after the devastating loss while officials presented flowers first to Switzerland, the bronze medalist, then to the USA and then to Canada.

Olympic hockey players of both genders have described those extended, tender minutes as among the most brutally painful of their careers.

If the Americans had made any mistake, it was relinquishing much of their offensive initiative in the last several minutes of regulation in favor of trying to execute defense in their own zone.

If not for three anguishing twists of fate, they might have prevailed.

That they did not, they are likely to remember for the rest of their lives.

It was the third silver for the Americans, who have one gold and one bronze in the brief history of Olympic women’s hockey.

That they relinquish the gold to Canada with such frequency has conjured sour emotions among current and former players for nearly two decades.

To have done so again in such incredible circumstances seemed almost too much to bear.

“The entire experience represents so much more than 60 minutes,” defenseman Gigi Marvin said. “Yes, we wanted to win. But, right now, what’s coming out of it is the hurting process.”

“It’s the worst feeling in the world, but maybe it wasn’t meant to be,” Stack said. “We worked so hard and got so close.”

Some Canadians leaving the game had just witnessed their women winning the gold in curling at an adjacent venue in the tightly-clustered Olympic Park.

One commented that if the rules of hockey provided for such help, as in curling, a “sweeper” could have brought that puck, sliding through an inordinately snowy hockey surface, back inside of the far post, into the net.

“An inch to the right,” Stack lamented, “and we would have won the gold medal.”