BEIJING — The waiting is not intended to be cruel, but it is.
For more than three years, the US women’s hockey team worked to repeat as gold medal winners at the Beijing Olympics. Instead, the Americans had to watch Canada jump all over each other in celebration while volunteers readied the ice for the medal ceremony.
Some US players took a knee on the ice. Others gazed into the abyss. A few hugged. Eventually, they begrudgingly hung silver around each other’s necks and then had to watch Canada be presented with gold, as “O Canada” played throughout Wukesong Sports Centre, with the Maple Leaf raised to the rafters above the Red, White and Blue.
“It stings for a while,” US forward Amanda Kessel said. “I won’t forget this, probably, forever.”
TEXT ALERT: Sign up for behind-the-scenes access from our reporters on the ground
OLYMPICS NEWSLETTER: All of our coverage straight to your inbox
MEDAL COUNT: How each country is performing at the Winter Games
Two constants have emerged over the past 12 years in the US-Canada women’s hockey rivalry. One is Marie-Philip Poulin scoring goals in Olympic gold medal games, which she did twice Thursday, to provide the difference for Canada in its 3-2 victory – the third straight time the Olympic final has ended in that score. She’s the first player to score in four Olympic finals, according to Hockey Canada.
The other constant is the parity between the two teams – the previous two gold-medal games required overtime to determine a winner. While the final score Thursday reflected a one-goal game, Canada dominated the first two periods and built a 3-0 lead that seemed insurmountable given the inefficiency of the American attack.
“I think the elephant in the room is you can’t get down that many goals,” said US forward Hilary Knight.
Knight willed a short-handed goal into the net with three minutes to play in the second period to cut the deficit to 3-1. But the next score didn’t come for more than a period. Kessel made it 3-2 on a power play with 13.5 seconds remaining in the game.
“I don’t think we scratched the surface with our ability to play,” Knight said. “It is what it is. They won a gold medal. We didn’t.
“I’ve seen us put together 60 minutes. That just wasn’t it.”
In a 4-2 loss to Canada in group play nine days ago, the US outshot Canada 53-27. The US ended with 40 shots against Canadian goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens on Thursday, while Canada recorded just 21 shots on goal.
“I think a big thing for us is quality over quantity,” said Canada forward Sarah Nurse. “I know today the Americans took a bunch of outside shots. We have the best goaltender in the world in Ann-Renée. They’re not going to be scoring from the outside very often.”
After the 2018 Games, Desbiens walked away from hockey for 18 months. Asked why she came back, Desbiens (38 saves) looked down at her gold medal.
“Well, for this,” she said. “Exactly this reason. Four years ago, after a silver medal, I thought it was my last game. I thought I was done. But then I came back. I didn’t have fun back then, and I can tell you today that it’s the most fun I’ve had in a while. My teammates are special. They’ve made playing the game I love again fun.”
Nurse, who set a record for most points in an Olympic tournament (18), broke a scoreless tie 7:50 into the game when she received a pass in the slot and deftly one-timed it off the bottom of the right post. By that point, the US had already wasted a point-blank opportunity when Hannah Brandt hit the left post early in the first period. In the third, a good look from Alex Carpenter hits the right pipe.
“I don’t know if it’s tough luck, what it is,” Kessel said. “Any empty net, any bounce, we weren’t getting them. We got like one bounce all tournament and it just seemed like that was the way it was going.”
The audible pings from those misses will haunt the US for the next four years. So will Poulin, as she has for 12 years. Then 18, Poulin scored the game-winning goal in the 2010 gold medal game and did the same four years later.
Her first goal Thursday came with five minutes left in the first. Poulin stripped Kelly Pannek of the puck and skated toward the slot and got a wrist-shot past American goaltender Alex Cavallini.
“I feel like I didn’t hold it in there for the team today,” said Cavallini (18 saves), who started all three games for the USA in the playoff round despite suffering a torn MCL on Jan. 14. “A bit number right now.”
Poulin scored again nine minutes into the second by knocking a rebound off Cavallini’s right pad into the net. It was the largest deficit the US had faced while playing Canada in the Olympics since group play in the inaugural women’s tournament in 1998, according to NBC Sports.
The US could have rolled over, but didn’t, and played an inspired – and somewhat desperate – third period to keep the pressure on Canada.
“I think the way we played today shows the fight, the grit, the resiliency and the adversity that this group has faced and has overcome over these last three years, six months and two weeks. There’s so much to be proud of,” captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said.
It didn’t result in a gold medal, though, and doesn’t make the loss any less painful.
“It’s devastating. It’s heartbreaking,” said the 32-year-old Knight, who set the American record for number of games played in the Olympics in what might be her final contest on this stage. “To come up short, it’s tough. It’s not what you want as a competitor. It’s not something that you even consider when you’re alone training. It’s not even a thought. It definitely stings. It hurts. It feels like we let our country down.”
And the waiting – four years of it – continues.
Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.