Canadians win only game that mattered

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- About the only thing Kim St-Pierre couldn't stop Thursday was the combined weight, energy and joy of her teammates as they tossed aside their gloves, their sticks and four years of frustration while smothering the Canadian goalie in a victory pileup so high they could hold Friday's giant slalom on it.

"I think I might have a concussion," St-Pierre said after stopping 25 shots in Canada's 3-2 gold medal victory over the United States. "I'm speaking but I'm losing track of my words. I don't remember what happened. I know I asked a teammate, 'Is it really over? Did we really win the gold medal?' "

St-Pierre wasn't the only one stunned, though. While Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser held her 22-month-old child and her teammates celebrated their country's first Olympic hockey gold medal since 1952, the heavily favored Americans reacted to their silver medals as if they had been handed polka-dotted corduroy ties for Christmas:

Thank you, they're very nice. But we were really hoping for something in gold.

Many of the Americans cried with disappointment as they accepted their medals while goalie Sarah Tueting spent her time in the receiving line wiping the tears from her face.

"It's pretty disappointing to spend four years on something and get a silver," admitted U.S. forward Jenny Potter, who earned a gold when the Americans beat Canada in Nagano.

That's an understandable feeling. Normally, it's no shame to take second in the Olympics, but in women's hockey, there are really only two teams, the United States and Canada. The rest of the globe is just so much rink time.

The two teams dominate women's hockey the way Dick Vitale dominates a conversation. They have never lost to any team but each other and they strolled through the Olympic tournament, outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 63-4. Everyone else is so far behind them that the bronze medalists, Sweden, nearly bailed out before the Olympics started because they didn't feel they could be competitive.

Thus, the sole goal for the United States was to beat Canada and vice-versa. When you only have one rival, there aren't many moral victories. These two teams spent every practice since the final horn in Nagano working toward this one inevitable rematch. And it was all for naught for the Americans, despite their 35-game winning streak heading into Thursday, including eight victories in a row against Canada.

Wickenheiser had said before the game that the U.S. team might crack under the pressure of being the heavy favorite and after the game she said the Canadians could see fear in the Americans' eyes after Canada scored the first goal less than two minutes into the game.

"The responsibility of being defending Olympic champion in your own country is a huge one, plus winning eight games in a row and when you've always had success," she said. "There's nowhere to go in that situation but down. We knew that when we came out they were tentative and nervous and they threw the puck around a lot. We capitalized on it and that early goal was huge."

"Hayley may be a great player, but she's not a very good optometrist," U.S. coach Ben Smith snapped in response. "Come on. Next question."

Smith wasn't particularly gracious in losing, but then again, he isn't used to it. They were 10-0 in the Olympics prior to Thursday's loss. He also was frustrated by his team's terrible performance on power plays. Canada was called for eight consecutive penalties in the first two periods -- the Canadians termed the officiating terrible and atrocious -- giving the Americans an extended power play that lasted almost nearly as long as a Don Cherry rant. All told, Canada played shorthanded for 15 minutes in a 23-minute stretch during the first and second periods.

Yet the United States was unable to take advantage of those power plays, even on two 5-on-3's, capitalizing less than e.e. cummings. The U.S. scored one goal during that stretch and Canada negated it by scoring almost immediately afterward on Wickenheiser's goal four minutes into the second period.

"I think we might have had too many power plays," Smith said. "We missed some open nets and then there was a lot of pressure that built up."

The difference was Canada's goal with one second remaining in the second period. Forward Jayna Hefford gloved a bouncing puck, put it on her stick and somehow slipped it past goalie Sara Decosta for a stunning goal.

Forward Karyn Bye gave the United States one last hope when her slapshot cut the score to 3-2 at 16:27 and chants of U-S-A! U-S-A! built to a deafening roar. But as the clock wound down, those chants faded and were replaced by the Canadian fans counting down the seconds.

"We're going to climb a mountain now," Canadian forward Vicky Sunohara said. "We were talking before and said that if we won the gold medal, we're going to climb one of those mountains here and we're bringing a flag to the top."

The Americans, meanwhile, have a four-year climb back to the certain rematch in Torino in 2006. They won 35 games in a row the past year, but they lost the only one that mattered.

"It's going to be a long four years," said Natalie Darwitz, the leading scorer for the U.S. despite still being in high school. "But the desire for that gold is going to be there even more."

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.