Canadian women squeak past American arch-rivals in first Sochi showdown

In a thrilling first showdown in Sochi, Team Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey team narrowly defeated their chief rivals from the United States. The game had everything – including a controversial goal – and is a sign of the excellence still to come.

The first game between the Canadian and American women’s hockey teams at the 2014 Sochi Olympics demonstrated exactly why these two countries are the lifeblood of the sport. And although Canada escaped with a narrow 3-2 win, there was nothing to suggest either side held a distinct advantage heading toward what many believe is their mutual destiny: appearing in another gold medal final.

Both countries held each other off the scoreboard in a back-and-forth first period that saw the goalies – Canada’s Charline Labonte and the U.S.’s Jessie Vetter – make tremendous saves to keep their team in the game. American superstar forward Hilary Knight put her squad on top late in the second period, but the Canadians found another gear in the final frame: first, Meghan Agosta-Marciano (who was celebrating her 27th birthday) evened the score at 2:21 of the third. Ninety-three seconds later, in what will stick out as a point of controversy, veteran Hayley Wickehneiser scored to give Canada its first lead; Vetter made the initial save on Wickenheiser’s shot, but the puck trickled in behind her milliseconds after it appeared the officials blew their whistle to stop the play.

Agosta-Marciano scored on a breakaway with five minutes left to make it 3-1 Canada, but the U.S. wasn’t disheartened. Despite being outshot 12-3 in the third, the Americans got a goal from Anne Schleper with 1:05 remaining and continued pressuring the Canadians in their zone until the final buzzer. The game report showed the shots on net were virtually equal (31 for Canada, 27 for America), and the penalty totals also were a near-match (five for the U.S., four for the Canadians). To argue one of these teams was far and away the better one is to not comprehend what “far and away” really means.

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All in all, the sold-out crowd of more than 7,000 at Sochi’s Shayba Arena – which included men’s players from Canada and the U.S. – were thrilled by the showdown, as were the hundreds of thousands watching back in North America. You can complain about overall competitive parity in the women’s game all you want, but the truth is, since women began playing at the Olympics in 1998, hockey fans have for 16 years been treated to the equivalent of Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier. That’s what we saw again Wednesday.

Small wonder, then, that fans are already stoked to see the Americans and Canadians battle again when a medal is on the line. No matter what side you’re rooting for, you can’t deny the entertainment and passion is second to none.