Gold-medal battle 'game for the ages'

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The helmets and sticks and gloves were scattered around the empty United States net as if blown out of a cannon.

The Canadians were mobbing Sidney Crosby -- as if anyone else would have scored what Europeans call a "golden goal" -- while the Americans coasted away as though driftwood in a sea.

And all we could ask ourselves was: Could we have some more, please?

Did it have to end?

Maybe Crosby's shot didn't really surprise U.S. netminder Ryan Miller and end this gold-medal game. Maybe Sunday's titanic afternoon of hockey could go on. And on. And on.

"That was a game for the ages," said Canadian center and tournament All-Star Jonathan Toews. "It doesn't get any better than that. I'm sure it'll be very memorable for a lot of people and especially for the guys in that locker room that found a way to win."

Even before the game ended, those in the press tribune were speaking of the action in hushed tones as though they knew they were witness to something destined to join the list of seminal games -- the 1972 Summit Series finale, the U.S. victory over Russia in Lake Placid in 1980, the U.S. victory over Canada in the final of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey in Montreal and the 1987 Canada Cup final in Hamilton, Ontario.

Clear a place in history for the 2010 gold-medal game.

"In Canada now, it's the greatest game ever," said Team USA coach Ron Wilson.

He lamented that it's too bad both teams couldn't receive a gold medal after a performance like that. "I thought we played equally as great a game [as Canada]," Wilson said.

The sentiment is understood.

Two nations -- one hoping to reclaim its birthright, while another perhaps falling in love with a sport again 30 years after the "Miracle on Ice" -- waged an intense battle for 60 minutes of regulation and then 7:40 of overtime.

Tense? The crowd at Canada Hockey Place (GM Place when Olympic sponsors aren't involved) went from collective inhale to banshee shrieks and back again within seconds throughout the game.

''It was unbelievable to be part of," said Canadian forward Mike Richards. "It was so fast. It was probably the quickest game I've been in. For a hockey player, that's the perfect game to play in."

Although the Canadians went ahead 2-0 on goals by Toews, the best player on the Canadian side throughout the last part of the tournament, and Corey Perry, there seemed to be no buckle in the Americans. The Americans kept at it and got a deflected goal from Ryan Kesler midway through the second period to make it 2-1.

It stayed that way through the balance of the second frame and through the third period. Shea Weber and Chris Pronger hit goalposts on successive shifts, one to the left of Miller, then one to the right. Crosby missed a partial breakaway late in the third, as did Eric Staal late in the second period.

Then, with Miller on the bench and the clock ticking down inside half a minute, Patrick Kane whirled and directed a shot at Roberto Luongo in the Canadian net and Zach Parise tapped home the rebound and all of a sudden the score was tied at 2. There were 24.4 seconds left on the clock when Parise threw himself against the glass in celebration.

"We had all the confidence in the world," said U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson. "We have a great swagger to our team. Even with a minute left, you could hear guys on the bench saying, 'We're going to score, we're going to score.' It's just how our team is. That's how our team has been rolling."

Between the end of the third and overtime, fans waited anxiously.

"I just thought we were going to win for sure," said U.S. defenseman Tim Gleason, who wasn't originally named to the team but came on board after injuries to Mike Komisarek and Paul Martin. "We knew the pressure on them was monumental after getting the game tied. And I thought we might have deafened the crowd a little bit and had a leg up going into overtime."

In the Canadian dressing room, though, Pronger said there was nothing in the way of panic.

"Honestly, it was very calm," added Canadian defenseman Dan Boyle. "I liked the way how it was just kind of calm. Kind of knew that it was our game to win. Just felt great out there. Felt calm."

Only once in the extra session, with both teams playing 4-on-4 as per international rules, did the Americans really threaten. San Jose center Joe Pavelski stole a clearing pass and whipped a high shot, which Roberto Luongo directed to the corner. But that was really it, and not long after, Crosby found himself with a loose puck to the left side of the net and snapped a shot home that brought what had been a grand spectacle to a sudden close.

"A great player made a great play and found a way to finish us off," Wilson said of Crosby's goal.

Johnson didn't look up from his spot on the bench.

"It's devastating," he said. "I don't know what else to say about it. You let the biggest award there is in all of sports slip through your fingers there at the end."

While the Canadians mobbed Crosby in the corner and dozens of Canadian flags waved in the still-packed stands, the Americans drifted toward Miller, the MVP of the tournament. Erik Johnson kneeled on the ice, resting on his stick. Kane sat for a moment straight out, looking away from the celebration at the other end of the ice.

"You almost don't know what to do," said U.S. forward Bobby Ryan. "It's one of those things, especially in sudden death. Your instinct right away is that we'll get it right back and then you've got to realize you can't. It's tough. It's like everything comes crashing down around you. That's probably the best way to put it."

That is the moment that stays with you -- the split-second after the goal is scored that changes everything for everyone on both teams. It could have gone either way, but it didn't. It went this way. It is so with all great games.

"I mean, if you win, it's the best feeling you've ever had in your life," Gleason said. "If you lose, it's probably the worst feeling you've ever had. And I don't think anyone's too proud about the way we lost in overtime and I think it's always tougher to lose in overtime than any other way. It's a bittersweet feeling to win a silver medal, but I know I'd much rather have gold around my neck."

Pronger was asked if he had ever played in a more emotional game. A four-time Olympian, a Stanley Cup champion and former Hart Trophy winner, Pronger paused. He noted the 2007 Cup-winning game when he was with Anaheim, and when he was with Edmonton playing against Carolina in Game 7 of the 2006 Cup finals.

"But the Olympics, being at home here, gold-medal game, overtime," Pronger said, shaking his head almost in dismay. "You're going to see a lot of kids growing up now wishing they were Sidney Crosby scoring in overtime, winning a gold medal, and that's pretty special."

The Americans waited patiently while the Canadians celebrated. Then, arena crews pulled out the long carpet and it was finally time to hand out the medals. Want to know why they say you never win a silver medal in hockey and only lose a gold? It's because it's true. There wasn't a smile cracked in that long line of American players, even as the silver medals appeared around their necks.

"This game showed all the good there is in hockey," said U.S. captain Jamie Langenbrunner. "The heart and determination everybody plays with. The battle level, the character of the athletes. It's a pretty special sport. It was a fun game to be [in]. Wish I could be on the other end of it."

Boyle walked by San Jose teammate Pavelski in the mixed zone and tapped him on the back and the two embraced.

"The up and the down, the roller-coaster ride there, that's what you kind of dream of," Boyle said. "You want to win in overtime. As a kid, that's kind of what you want, although we didn't want to lose the lead there. Certainly a great end to what was a pretty awesome Olympics for Canada."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.