U.S. comes up short in gold-medal game

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- At 5:47 p.m. PT, the USOC issued this news release: "Breaking News: U.S. falls to Canada, takes silver in women's ice hockey." It is the cruel irony of the Olympic Games. The team that "wins" silver has to lose to get it, and its players are then forced to stand there and watch their triumphant opponents celebrate in front of them, while the members of the team that wins the bronze-medal match can drape themselves in their flags and celebrate their last victory. The second-place team always feels decidedly worse than the third.

The six Olympic veterans on Team USA -- Angela Ruggiero, Julie Chu, Natalie Darwitz, Jenny Potter, Caitlin Cahow and Molly Engstrom -- have had a taste of both scenarios in the past two Olympics. At the Torino Games in 2006, they won the bronze medal by defeating Finland. And at Canada Hockey Place on Thursday afternoon, they lost the gold medal to the home team and ended up standing on the ice while Canada did its victory lap.

"Our goal was to win the gold medal," Potter said. "As much as I'm proud to win a silver medal, the immediate reaction is disappointment. You go out there and battle and come up short, it's a little disappointing. As time passes, I'm sure I'll be proud to go show my silver medal around because not many people get an Olympic medal. But after four years of working our butts off, coming up short is disappointing."

Potter, 31, is the oldest member of Team USA. Ruggiero is 30. Vancouver was the fourth Olympics for them both, and both wanted to go out with gold. But with the sting of the loss still fresh, neither wanted to think about her future. "I'm not sure what I'll do next," Ruggiero said. "It's going to take a little bit of time."

Today, time ran out for Team USA. The Americans put in a valiant effort, but Canada matched them stride for stride. In the opening period, in which Canada scored both its goals, Team USA failed to score on a 39-second 5-on-3 power play but continued to pepper Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados with shots while Canadian defenseman Catherine Ward remained in the box for interference. The Americans just couldn't break through. Just as the power play ended, the Canadians took the puck the other way, and 18-year-old center Marie-Philip Poulin put a waffler over the shoulder of Jessie Vetter for a 1-0 lead. Poulin struck again, just 2:55 later, to make it 2-0.

Team USA got a second big opportunity in the second period, with another 5-on-3 power play, this one for a minute and 37 seconds. Canada's penalty killers held a perfect triangle in front of the crease, blocking almost everything the Americans threw at the net. When one shot got through, a turn-around backhand off the stick of Meghan Duggan, Szabados was there. "She played well. She controlled her rebounds and didn't give us a lot of second or third opportunities. She never cracked," Team USA coach Mark Johnson said of Szabados. "Canada did a good job killing their penalties. They blocked shots, and when the puck got through, we didn't have enough rebounds or traffic to generate the offense." At the end of the day, Szabados stopped all 28 of Team USA's shots on goal.

"We have no regrets. No one has any excuses today. We don't have any alibis," Ruggiero said. "We just couldn't score."

As the clock ticked down to a minute remaining, the noise level at Hockey Canada Place grew to a roar, with 19,300 maple leaf-painted fans waiving Canadian flags, drowning out the music on the PA system as Johnson tried to rally his troops at the bench for the final faceoff of the game. When the buzzer sounded, no one heard it.

Potter hung her head at center ice. Vetter was hugged by Chu, then Erika Lawler, then the rest of a somber Team USA as Canada, sticks and gloves and helmets flung into the air, piled on Szabados. The Americans stood, resting their weight on their sticks, just inside their blue line, watching the mayhem at the other end of the ice. Then, they watched the Canadians receive their medals.

Ruggiero couldn't hold back the tears on the ice, and they came again when she was at the microphone. "It's really hard," she said. "We put a lot into this. When you give your life to something and come up short, it's just hard."

Harder still when watching your archrivals having the time of their lives.

Lindsay Berra is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.