‘This is redemption’: Canada beat USA to women’s ice hockey gold

‘Captain Clutch’ Marie-Philip Poulin scores twice as a resurgent Canada side win 3-2 against their old rivals

The imperious Canada women’s ice hockey team completed a buzzsaw run through the Olympic tournament with a comprehensive victory over their defining foes, seeing off the United States in Thursday’s gold medal game by a 3-2 scoreline that flattered to deceive.

The latest instalment in one of world sport’s most hotly contested rivalries was largely one-way traffic for the half-hour the outcome truly hung in the balance. Marie-Philip Poulin, known as “Captain Clutch”, scored twice as the defending world champions opened a three-goal lead behind an aggressive forechecking attack and a standout effort by in-form goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens, who finished with 38 saves.

“This is redemption,” said Poulin, whose double marked her sixth and seventh goals in four career Olympic gold medal games. “It’s just so good. It’s a great feeling. It was one hell of an effort.”

Canada got off to a flying start, firing six of the first seven shots on goal until appearing to draw first blood after eight minutes when Natalie Spooner found the back of the net after a failed zone clearance. The goal was disallowed for offsides on a USA replay challenge, but Canada took control with a goal that stuck through Sarah Nurse 35 seconds after play resumed.

Poulin doubled the advantage before the period was out, capitalising on a gruesome USA turnover in their defensive zone. While the stat sheet at the first intermission suggested an evenly matched affair beyond the score, the well-drilled Canadian defense were limiting their opponents to mostly speculative shots on target while peppering away from closer range on Alex Cavallini, who finished with 18 saves.

The gold medal was all but in hand after Poulin struck again midway through the second period with an assist from Nurse, whose 18th point of the tournament extended an Olympic record. The Americans pulled one back on an unassisted short-handed goal from Hilary Knight right before the second intermission, but were repeatedly thwarted by Desbiens and could not get any closer until Amanda Kessel’s largely cosmetic goal on a power play with 12.5 seconds left in the game.

The USA struggle to hide their disappointment at picking up silver
The USA struggle to hide their disappointment at picking up silver. Photograph: Elsa/Getty Images

Canada closed the show easily from there, putting the finishing touches on a seven-game Olympic masterpiece where they outscored their opponents by a 57-10 margin.

A mob of red sweaters came together in celebration at the final horn as the stunned Americans looked on before several hundred spectators and volunteers at Wukesong Sports Centre, the eye-catching 15,384-seat arena where LeBron James and Kobe Bryant led USA men’s basketball team to a redemptive gold when the Olympics last came to town in 2008.

“I don’t think we played up to our potential,” Knight said. “We came up short. We did not get the puck to the net enough.”

That Canada’s women will be at or near the top of the global scene remains one of the death-and-taxes certainties in sport, but the road to gold was uncommonly turbulent this time around. After falling short of the gold in Pyeongchang four years ago for the first time in 16 years with a penalty-shootout defeat to the US, the Canadians bowed out to Finland in the semi-finals of the 2019 world championships, marking the first time in 25 appearances at the Olympics or worlds they failed to reach the final.

Change came quickly. Parry Pearn was dismissed as head coach less than three months later, replaced by Troy Ryan. Also out were the longtime goaltender Shannon Szabados and defender Laura Fortino.

It all paid off at last year’s worlds as Canada hoisted the trophy for the first time since 2012. In Beijing they breezed through the group stage, including a 4-2 win over the US in a dress rehearsal for the final, before trouncing Sweden (11-0) and Switzerland (10-3) in the medal rounds.

Finland took the bronze for the third time in the past four Olympics with a 4-0 win over Switzerland on Wednesday

“It is insane,” said the Canada forward Sarah Fillier, the team’s youngest player at 21. “I can’t stop shaking. ”

The celebrations begin for Canada after winning gold
The celebrations begin for Canada after winning gold Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images

Canada and the United States have combined to win every global title since the first official world championships in 1990 and the inaugural Olympic tournament in 1998, facing off in the final in all but two of them. Their meetings remain weighted with significance even as the ill-temper and general spiciness that defined the rivalry has given way to a collegial professionalism and mutual respect in recent years.

Their overwhelming dominance was thrust to the fore last week after a widely panned op-ed in the Toronto Star made the argument that women’s hockey doesn’t belong in the Olympics due to a competitive shortfall beyond the Big Two. But one wonders if the unassailable supremacy of neighboring countries that share the world’s longest international border can work as an asset and not a drawback.

For years the Canadian and US national teams have been waiting for their “1999 moment” – a nod to Brandi Chastain’s celebration to win the Women’s World Cup – that sort of societal inflection point where on-field success within a parochial sports world breaks through to a new level of popularity in the cultural mainstream.

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If the powers that be were smart, the US and Canada would meet in an annual best-of-seven series – a fixture with a trophy beyond the current promotional tours where they meet for exhibitions – that would keep this rivalry in the general public’s eye. That is a conversation for another day. For now Canada can celebrate holding the Olympic and world championships at the same time for the first time in nearly a decade.

“It feels very good – 2018 was very hard,” Poulin said. “You take some time to reflect on what you need to do better as a group and personally. It really pays off. When you surround yourself with good people, good things happen.”


Bryan Armen Graham at the Wukesong Sports Centre

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