GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Who needs the NHL?
We’re good with Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson pulling off the sickest of moves – her shoulders dipping to and fro, her blades cutting this way and that, her magic wand of a stick guiding the puck past a helpless Canadian goalie who had been reduced to a pretzel.
We’re good with Maddie Rooney making one last stop – squeezing shut the tantalizing gap in her pads as the shooter swerved in front of the net, swatting away a puck that lingered perilously in the crease, throwing up her arms and disappearing into a dog pile of blue-clad teammates near the blue line.
Certainly, this was the only gold medal hockey game that matters at these Winter Olympics.
When it was done – three thrilling periods of regulation, another free-wheeling 20 minutes of overtime, a shootout that went six tension-filled rounds – the Americans littered the ice the sticks, gloves and helmets, whooping it up in a raucous, fitting celebration of their 3-2 triumph over the heartbroken Canadians .
Some will surely say this was a victory for women’s hockey.
That would be selling it short.
This was a victory for all of hockey.
”They played great. We played great,” Canadian forward Marie-Philip Poulin said, her voice barely above a whisper. ”It just shows how much women’s hockey is growing. We want to keep going, keep getting better.”
When the NHL decided to sit out the Pyeongchang Games, its stars were replaced in the men’s bracket by minor-leaguers, European professionals and only a smattering of recognizable names.
But the Olympics got the undisputed best of the women’s game, monopolized by two North American powerhouses that are the bitterest of rivals and the only real challenge to each other.
The U.S. claimed the first Olympic title, before Canada ripped off four in succession. The two countries have divvied up every women’s world championship since that tournament began in 1990, leaving the rest of the world to scramble for the crumbs. The asymmetrical balance of power must change if the sport is to really grow, but there was no question about the quality of play on Thursday.
The Americans jumped ahead in the first period. The Canadians claimed the lead with two goals in the second. That set up a crucial sequence with just under 7 minutes left in the third.
Canada’s Laura Stacy swooped in all alone on Rooney, looking to put a capper on another gold medal with a shot into the top left corner. But the 20-year-old goaltender nicked the puck with her blocker, just enough to send it wide of the bar and careening around the boards. Kelly Pannek picked it off in front of the American bench and spotted teammate Monique Lamoureux-Morando – Jocelyn’s twin – breaking free behind the Canadian defense.
The pass was right on the mark. Lamoureux-Morando glided in on the breakaway, holding the puck as long as she could before lifting a shot over the glove of Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados.
It stayed 2-2 through the rest of regulation, setting up a 4-on-4 overtime period. Even with one less skater per side and all that open ice, neither team was able to break through with the winning goal. The gold medal would be decided with a shootout, which is generally a less-than-satisfying way of settling such an important matter .
This was the exception.
First, Gigi Marvin pulled off a brilliant recovery to put the Americans ahead. Beginning to fall and the puck slipping away, she somehow managed to flick it past Szabados before crashing into the side of the net.
Then it was Melodie Daoust giving Canada the upper hand with a stunner of a move. She looped through the right faceoff circle, darted down in front of Rooney to drag her across the crease, before reaching back to bury a one-handed swing of a shot.
Rooney and Szabados had their moments, too, making three saves apiece to send the shootout to sudden death.
Lamoureux-Davidson went for the Americans. As she bore down on Szabados, the toying began.
A fake to the right. A deke to the left. Finally, back to the right again – the sort of ankle-breaking tactic one might expect from Steph Curry. Szabados desperately flailed her body in front of the net, even losing hold of her stick, but she didn’t have a chance.
Canada sent out Meghan Agosta, who had beaten Rooney earlier in the shootout with a shot to an upper corner – top shelf, they call it – but the young American foiled a repeat by venturing far out of the crease. Agosta sliced to her left and thought she spotted enough of an opening in the pads to slip one through the five-hole. Rooney knew what was coming, sealing off the gap with both her stick and pads.
She didn’t totally stop the puck, but got enough of it to leave it about a foot short of the goal line. Rooney knocked it away just in case. The celebration was on.
”It shows how tight our teams are,” U.S. forward Hannah Brandt said. ”Obviously, it’s tough for it to come down to a shootout like that. But just a great game. I hope everyone had a good time watching it.”
Not needed here.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press