Marie-Philip Poulin scored goals 2:55 apart in the first period, and Canada held off the United States 2-0 to win their third consecutive women’s hockey gold, Thursday in Vancouver.
The Canadians were backed by an amazing 28-save performance by 23-year-old Shannon Szabados, who was stellar in her very first Olympic tournament.
Nobody was surprised to see the world’s two superpowers of women’s hockey meet in third gold medal final of the last four Olympics, and a sea of red and white at Canada Hockey Place was roaring from the minute the players took the ice in warm-up.
Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser spoke to CTV prior to the game regarding the crowd noise, and didn’t seem worried.
“We feed off them,” she said. “We will be riding a wave of emotion [tonight].”
Despite Wickenheiser’s confidence, both teams started slowly, with the opening minutes of the first period being spent in the neutral zone, as if the teams were feeling each other out.
It was not until Canada had back-to-back power plays at the midway point that the pace began to pick up.
Jessie Vetter, the netminder for the Americans foiled any chances however, and the Americans got a boost, bringing the play back down into Canada’s end.
There they would soon draw two penalties of their own setting up a 5-on-3 advantage that would serve as a wake up call for team Canada.
The penalty killers blocked numerous shots, and less than 30 seconds after her teammate stepped out of the box, Poulin delivered the games opening goal.
The fans erupted, as from the high slot she one-timed a beautiful pass from Jennifer Botterill over Vetter’s shoulder into the top corner.
Soon after, with Canada riding the momentum from the goal, Poulin would again display a ‘Brett Hull’ like ability to find seams, and slip into holes on the ice.
With another quick release she snapped in her second of the game over the left pad, after she won the face-off in the offensive zone, and beat the opposing center to the loose puck.
Surprising, the 18-year-old’s fourth and fifth goals of the Olympics were all the offence Canada needed.
They spent the remaining two periods in more of a defensive shell, keeping the shots from the outside, and relying on the play of another young rising star in net, Szabados.
“We believe in her,” veteran Jayna Hefford told CTV after two periods. “We have the three best [female] goalies in the world, by far.”
The defensive emphasis was uncharacteristic of the offensive juggernaut that was criticized for not letting up in record setting 18-0 win earlier in the Games, and that lead all countries in the tournament in scoring, setting an Olympic record with 48 goals-for.
However, it was Canada’s superior play around the boards, and winning of battles for the puck down low, that sealed the victory.
When the Americans did get chances, such as second 5-on-3 power play when two Canadians flipped the puck over the glass, Szabados gave them nothing.
In particular she showed exceptional aggressive positioning, a lightning glove, and better rebound-control then her counterpart Vetter.
As time counted down, the referees put their whistles away, and team USA made one final stand, but to no avail.
An extended horn sounded, and the celebration began.
The players piled on Szabados, who was named best goalie at the Olympics, meanwhile Meghan Agosta who assisted on Poulin’s first goal, and lead the tournament in goals and points, was named Most Valuable Player at the Games.
American, Molly Engstrom was named the best defenceman, but her team could merely watch, many of them in tears, as the building went crazy.
Canada and the United States had dominated all other opponents thus far in the Olympics, and both were undefeated heading into the rematch of the 2002 gold medal game in Salt Lake City.
Despite Canada’s gold medals in back-to-back Olympic Games, the Americans were ranked higher going into the tournament, coming off consecutive World Championships in 2008, and 2009.
However, all questions regarding the best in the world were answered when the maple leaf rose to the rafters, and our anthem played.
Seven first-time Olympians received gold, and Canada pushed its record to 13-7 all-time against the Americans.
As former team Canada captain, and current CTV colour-analyst Cassie Campbell looked on, she couldn’t help but reminisce.
“They put that ribbon around your neck, the flowers in your hand,” she explained, “it’s unbelievable. There’s no better feeling in the world, you can’t even describe it.”
The bronze medal game
Earlier in the day, the bronze was decided as the two losers of the semifinals, Sweden and Finland, met at Canada Hockey Place to play for third place.
Similar to the gold medal final, it pitted to rival nations against each other with a long history of competition.
The underdog Finns, needed overtime to knock off the 2006 silver medal winning Swedish team, as Karoliina Rantamaki scored at 2:33 into the extra period, when her pass was deflected in off a Swedish defenceman.
The win ended a 12-year drought since Finland last one a medal, another bronze in the 1998 Nagano Games, the first-ever Olympics that featured Women’s hockey.
Rantamaki was on that team too, and spoke about her goal with the Associated press after the game.
“I knew if I got it in front, we would score,” said Rantamaki, one of just two remaining players from Finland’s original bronze medallists in Nagano. “It’s really unbelievable, a great feeling right now. I waited 12 years. It was so long that I waited.”
After a scoreless first period, Heidi Pelttari and Michelle Karvinen also scored for Finland, and Maria Rooth scored for Sweden before Danijela Rundqvist tied things in the third.
However, the Finns would prevail, and deserved the upset, out-shooting the Swedes 24-18, who are now headed home after not meeting their country’s expectations for a second-straight Olympic medal.
Finland on the other hand, couldn’t have expected anything better heading into the tournament with the North Americans being highly favoured.
It was only the country’s second medal in Vancouver, and Finland’s President Tarja Halonen was in attendance for the celebration after she gave a motivational speech to the Finnish team before the game.
Halonen was elated in her press conference afterwards, and spoke about increasing funding to compete for gold in 2014 in Russia.
This is good news for a sport that has been criticized at these games for being a two horse race, and having to widespread a gap in talent.
Only time will tell if women’s hockey can continue to grow in European nations and hopefully be able to one day compete with North American programs.