The Olympic women's ice hockey feud between the United States and Canada has become the best rivalry in the sport because their games have intensity, animosity and an unparalleled quality of play. What they haven't had is a sense of inevitability: that one side would triumph over the other. That is until Canada took the ice in the Beijing Olympics' gold-medal game on Thursday and defeated the U.S. 3-2.
The gap between the teams had never been wider, from the sportsbooks to public perception.
And that's something that should really give USA Hockey pause.
To recap the rivalry: This was the sixth meeting between the U.S. and Canada for Olympic women's ice hockey gold since the event was added in 1998. The Americans won twice (1998, 2018), while Canada has won gold five times -- four times against the U.S. and in 2006 against Sweden, when the U.S. settled for bronze.
The Americans ended a run of four straight Canadian gold medals with their 3-2 shootout win at the 2018 PyeongChang Games. It took a dramatic goal by Monique Lamoureux to tie the game with 6:21 left in regulation; an even more dramatic goal from her twin sister, Jocelyn, in the shootout; and 29 saves from goalie Maddie Rooney plus four more in the shootout to secure the win.
The Lamoureux twins retired after those Olympics. Players who competed in multiple Olympics, like Kacey Bellamy, Gigi Marvin and captain Meghan Duggan, also left the team. Brianna Decker injured her leg in the Americans' first game in Beijing and was lost for the tournament (she was pushed out on a cart to the silver-medal ceremony). Rooney played against Canada in the 4-2 preliminary-round loss; Alex Cavallini got the start in the gold-medal game and gave up a soft second goal to Marie-Philip Poulin to tip the scales to Canada in the first period.
All of this is to say that while Team USA returned 13 players from its 2018 gold-medal-winning team, the roster had been drained of many key ingredients to that winning recipe, those depth players who allowed them to go toe-to-toe with the talented Canadians in previous editions of this feud.
They couldn't recreate the necessary chemistry. That was never more evident than on the Americans' feckless power play, which couldn't get on the same page consistently for the better part of a year against Canada in exhibition, world championship and Olympic play. They had 5:12 of power-play time against the Canadians in the gold-medal game and converted with only 12.5 seconds left in the game and their goalie pulled.
Team USA went 7-for-29 on its power play in Beijing. But it wasn't how many goals it scored -- it was when it didn't score when it needed them.
There were systemic problems with this team. They were obvious in the lead-up to the Olympics, when Canada won four of six games in the "rivalry series" exhibition. Coach Joel Johnson couldn't find ways to address them.
Johnson certainly didn't allow his depth players the chance to prove themselves as the tournament wore on. The Americans had 10 players who played more than 20 minutes in the gold-medal game and nine players who played less than 11 minutes. Defender Jincy Dunne, who had three assists in the tournament, didn't see the ice in the gold-medal game or the semifinal win over Finland. Forward Grace Zumwinkle, misused throughout the tournament, played 6:43.
"Every game presents different matchups. Every tournament presents different combinations," Johnson said after the gold-medal loss. "As we went through the tournament, some of the things we were trying to do led us to certain line combinations. Some people get extra ice. Some people didn't get any. That was just a part of how we felt out strengths and weaknesses played out best.
"As a coach, you're always saying 'shoulda, coulda, woulda' in any situation. Line combinations and ice time are always something where if you win, nobody asks that question. When you don't win, everybody's got curious questions. I wouldn't have done it any differently."
Johnson shortened his bench in a way that showed a lack of faith in his rank and file. Hilary Knight factored into three of the team's seven goals in the past two games, including its lone goal until Amanda Kessel's tally late in the third. Were the Americans too reliant on their top players to the detriment of their depth, or was relying on their top players the only chance they had at winning gold?
"I don't think we played up to our potential," said Knight.
Which brings us back to inevitability. The Canadians were a steamroller, scoring an Olympic record 57 goals in the tournament, while the Americans had to work hard to reach the gold-medal game. It's a disparity that had been creeping into this rivalry over the past year -- like when Canada snapped a streak of five American gold medals in the IIHF world championships with an overtime win in 2021, and like when they absorbed 53 shots to win in the preliminary round.
The best rivalries are ones fought on equal footing. Even when the Americans lost three straight gold-medal games against Canada, there was a sense they were anyone's games to win. Like in 2002, when the Americans entered Salt Lake City with a 35-game winning streak and Canada entered with undeniable animosity. Like in 2010, when Poulin scored two goals in the first period and the Canadian hung on to win in Vancouver. Like in 2014 -- ugh, 2014 -- when Poulin scored with 55 seconds left in the third period to send the game to overtime where she won it on a 4-on-3 power-play goal, after a phantom penalty on Knight.
But in 2022, the Americans skated into that game against Canada knowing the scales had tipped. They played like it. They certainly coached like it.
Canada's Natalie Spooner had the quote of the tournament after the Canadians' win over the U.S. in preliminaries: "Every time we go in against them, we want to make a statement and show them that they don't belong on the ice with us."
The gold-medal game in Beijing was the closest Canada has gotten in this rivalry to proving that theory. USA Hockey needs to do some soul searching on that.