Despite goals from both Hilary Knight and Anne Schleper against their arch nemesis, Team USA faltered on defense in the final period on Wednesday and dropped a 3-2 contest to Team Canada in their final game of preliminary round play at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The loss snapped a four game pre-Olympics winning streak for the Americans versus the Canadians. Meghan Agosta-Marciano scored two goals, and Hayley Wickenheiser added another, as Team Canada notched its 18th consecutive Olympic win. Wednesday's tilt was likely a preview of the gold medal match scheduled for February 20.
After a scoreless first period, Knight handed Team USA a 1-0 lead in the waning minutes of the second on a redirect, beating Team Canada goaltender Charline Labonte. However, Team Canada erupted in the third and scored three unanswered goals of their own. With Team USA's Brianna Decker in the penalty box for holding, Agosta-Marciano tied things up with a power play goal off an assist from Wickenheiser, and Wickenheiser put the Canadians ahead by slipping a puck past Team USA goaltender Jessie Vetter. Canada's second goal was reviewed after Team USA head Coach Katey Stone told officials she heard a whistle before the puck crossed the line, but the officials upheld the original call after video review was inconclusive. Agosta-Marciano, who coincidentally was also celebrating her 27th birthday on Wednesday, lit the lamp a second time on an unassisted breakaway with just over five minutes remaining in the game to open up a two goal lead for the Canadians.
"I didn't go out there thinking I was going to score on my birthday," said Agosta-Marciano. "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter who puts the puck in the net if we win."
Team USA mounted an impressive comeback attemmpt in the game's final minutes. After pulling Vetter to gain an extra attacker, Schleper banged a slapshot past Labonte to cut the deficit to one goal. However, the Americans ran out of time and couldn't tie things up before the final horn sounded.
"I'm a little indifferent about how our team played today," said Coach Stone. "Our defensive support was not what it's typically been in the last two months and that's an area we can continue to work on."
Knight, who scored a goal in all three of Team USA's preliminary round contests, echoed her coach's sentiments.
“Defense wins games and that’s what we need to do," she said. "We need to take care of our defensive zone and create more opportunities offensively and have a little bit of puck luck.”
Team USA if now off until Monday, when they will play a Group A semifinal game as the number two seed. The matchups this weekend will decide whether or not they face Finland or Switzerland. A likely rematch against Team Canada also looms on the horizon, and the heated rivalry is dubbed as the Stanley Cup of women's hockey.
“There are lots of good rivalries in hockey,” said Team Canada head coach Kevin Dineen. “This one is the real deal. I think there’s a mutual respect there. Sometimes to be really good, you have to have a foil.”
Team Canada's hasn't lost in Olympic competition since Team USA defeated them in the 1998 gold medal game in Nagano, Japan. It was the first year that women's hockey debuted as an Olympic sport.
Knight added that although the loss was difficult to swallow, Team USA is still very much in contention to reclaim gold in Sochi, commenting that "we've taken some hits and we'll come back from it . . . we'll come back a stronger team next time."