Breaking Down the Complete Madness of USA-Canada’s Gold-Medal Game
Thursday’s gold-medal showdown between Team Canada and Team USA delivered the game we all knew was coming: close, vicious, and almost impossibly tense. Two decades into one of the best rivalries in sports, we couldn’t have expected anything else.
The only open questions were who would win, how it would end, and just how crazy things could get in between. The answers: Canada; in overtime; and “beyond anything you could imagine.”
Is that hyperbole? I’m really not sure it is. But just to be sure, let’s break out the Madness Scale and take a walk back through the entire game.
A combination of bad blood and skittish officiating by referee Joy Tottman turned the first into a special teams contest, with the Canada and the U.S. trading power plays. That led to several solid scoring chances, but the period ended up scoreless thanks to some strong goaltending from America’s Jessie Vetter and Canada’s Shannon Szabados.
Madness Scale: 3/10. All the penalties meant it was hard to get a read on which team was controlling the play. It wasn’t a bad period, but it left you hoping something more entertaining was to come. Careful what you wish for …
When that pair of zeroes was still on the scoreboard midway through the second, the game began to take on a distinct “next goal wins” feel. That goal finally came courtesy of U.S. captain Meghan Duggan, who buried a wrist shot from the faceoff circle past a screened Szabados 12 minutes into the period.
The period also featured three more power plays, all of which went to Canada. Not only could it not muster a goal with those advantages, but it barely generated any offense at all. These two teams had split the last eight major international tournaments and were close to even during a year’s worth of head-to-head exhibition matchups leading up to Sochi, but as the second period wore on Thursday, the U.S. undeniably started to establish an edge. It was a small edge, sure, but in a winner-take-all game like this, that was all it might take.
Still, Canada went into the second intermission trailing the Americans 1-0, just as it had been in last week’s round-robin matchup between the two. In that game, Canada clawed back for a 3-2 regulation win, so this one was far from over.
Madness Scale: 4/10. It’s getting tense.
Team USA Goes Up 2-0
In the preliminary round, Canada erased the U.S. lead in the third period thanks to an early power play. This time, it was Americans who earned an early advantage, when Tara Watchorn took her third minor of the game. And they converted quickly, with Alex Carpenter tipping home a beautiful feed from Hilary Knight.
Madness Scale: 6/10. It really was a beautiful goal. And now Canada would have to slip into desperation mode.
The Third Period Ticks Away
Even with plenty of hockey left to play, that 2-0 goal started to feel like a clincher. Team USA had played near-perfect hockey. When a Canadian passing lane opened, an American stick found it. When there was a loose puck, Team USA’s superior speed won the race. And when Canada did get a rare chance, Vetter was there to shut the door.
With five minutes left, it was still 2-0 and Canada seemed to be running out of gas. Other than Carpenter’s goal, the third period had been uneventful. Maybe, if we’re being honest, even a little dull.
Madness Scale: 2/10. In hindsight, this was the hockey gods giving everyone one last chance to breathe.
Cue the Comeback
Sometimes, hockey is all about will. It’s about an unstoppable individual effort or a stunning display of skill, the kind of play where one player refuses to be denied. And sometimes, it’s about getting a lucky bounce.
With time running out, Canada got just enough of the former and a good dose of the latter to cut the lead to 2-1. Brianne Jenner sliced through the American defense and fired a harmless-looking shot that ricocheted off an American knee and floated over Vetter before finding the back of the net.
With less than four minutes to play, Canada was within one. Game on.
Madness Scale: 8/10. “We’re in for a wild finish,” we all said. “You have no idea,” answered the eerie voice of our future selves.
Jenner’s goal seemed to reenergize the Canadians, who controlled the play for stretches while pushing for the equalizer. For the first time all game, Canada looked like it could make a case that it really was the better team.
But the U.S. didn’t panic, and it had the clock on its side. As the clock ticked down to 95 seconds left, the Canadians pulled their goaltender.
Madness Scale: 9/10. If you weren’t hyperventilating at least a little bit by this point, I don’t know what to tell you.
With a faceoff deep in the U.S. zone and six Canadian attackers on the ice, the stage was set for one of the most bizarre moments in recent hockey history. The Americans won the faceoff, but Canada quickly gained control and sent a pass back to the point for Catherine Ward.
And then — and there’s really no other way to describe this — Ward was hip checked by a linesman. Even that doesn’t really do the play justice, because the whole thing actually unfolded slowly enough that you had the chance to mumble, “Wait, what the hell is she doing?” The linesman even looks over her shoulder at one point, but she just keeps backing up, eventually colliding with Ward and giving Kelli Stack a chance to whack the puck out of the zone.
The incompetence was borderline comical, until you realized the puck was still going. And going. And it kept on going, agonizingly slowly, all the way down the ice toward the empty Canadian net and the goal that would clinch the gold medal for Team USA.
Madness Scale: 10/10. I’ve watched that play 100 times and still cannot believe it happened.
Madness Scale: ∞/10. If you saw that happen in your kid’s peewee game, you wouldn’t believe your eyes. It happened in the final minutes of a gold-medal game.
The Tying Goal
After collecting the puck and earning a faceoff deep in the U.S. zone, Canada called timeout to plan its final assault. The Canadians lost the draw but used their extra body to recover the puck, setting up Hayley Wickenheiser for a scoring chance that she sent wide.
Rebecca Johnston chased the puck down and threw a centering pass out front. The attempt looked harmless enough, but it deflected off the side of the U.S. net and found the stick of Marie-Philip Poulin alone in front, and she made a quick move to beat Vetter and tie it.
Madness Scale: WHOOOOOOOOOOOO! (Editor’s note: Remember, you’re pretending to be objective. Try again.)
Madness Scale: Whoooo. (Editor’s note: Close enough.)
The Rest of the Third Period
I have no recollection of anything that happened for the rest of the third period. It’s possible I blacked out.
Madness Scale: ?/10. Your guess is as good as mine.
The End of Regulation
At this point, the first thought going through every hockey fan’s mind was likely some variation of I can’t believe that just happened. The second was probably Wait, please tell me they don’t settle this with a shootout.
Luckily, Olympic gold-medal games are decided with a full 20 minutes of overtime, meaning that the chances were good we’d get to see the game end on a real goal. That was the good news. The bad news was that it also meant we’d have to sit through a full intermission.
Which gave us plenty of time for a third thought: Wait … a last-minute goal to tie the gold-medal game between Canada and the U.S. at 2-2? I’ve seen this before … That seemed like an omen. But for whom?
Madness Scale: 87/100. Yes, we’ve moved to a 100-point scale. This is gold-medal overtime. Ten points can’t hold gold-medal overtime.
Overtime would be played four-on-four, meaning there would be plenty of open ice available for either team to press the attack. Early on, the Americans did just that, converting a steal behind the Canadian net into a series of scoring chances highlighted by Szabados robbing Kacey Bellamy with a glove save roughly a minute in.
From there the two teams traded chances. They also liberally traded obstruction and interference and a few open-field tackles, all of which left players sprawled on the ice on almost every shift. But hey, it’s overtime. The refs put the whistles away when it’s sudden death, right?
Madness Scale: 91/100. Dabbling in a bit of ironic foreshadowing, are we?
The Phantom Crosscheck
Just over six minutes in, a relatively harmless U.S. chance quickly turned into one of those Oh, god, the puck is loose at the side of the net moments of panic. The puck stayed out, but in the ensuing scramble, Ward filled in Anne Schleper and was called for crosschecking by referee Tottman.
It was a strange choice for a call, given that Ward wasn’t even holding her stick in both hands. But it was almost definitely roughing and/or body checking, so the American power play was well deserved.
Madness Scale: 93/100. A power play in sudden death? Hey, full credit to Tottman for making the tough call in that situation. It would have been easy to find a way to even it up, and she made sure that she … oh wait, looks like I didn’t type that sentence fast enough.
The Makeup Call
The American power play lasted all of six seconds, before Jocelyne Lamoureux was whistled for slashing Szabados after a save. And there’s not really any nice way to put this: It was a terrible call, as blatant a makeup job as you’ll ever see.
Refereeing is a hard job. Doing it in front of the entire world is even tougher. Anyone who earned the right to officiate a game like this probably busted their butt to get there, and according to this article, Tottman had to overcome a lot to win the assignment.
But criticism, when warranted, is part of the job, and this was an awful call. Just awful.
Madness Scale: 95/100, assuming we’re still talking “madness” as in “crazy.” If we’re using “madness” as a synonym for anger, then it’s more like “Every American fan just threw their big-screen TV into their backyard.”
With the team playing three-on-three, Canada’s Wickenheiser picked up a loose puck in her own zone and took off on a 170-foot breakaway. For a second, it set up an almost impossibly dramatic moment: the greatest women’s player in history, playing the final game of her Olympic career, in all alone with a chance to win gold against her country’s most-hated rivals.
But then Hilary Knight quickly started to catch up. On pure speed, the race wasn’t even a contest, with Knight nearly pulling even with Wickenheiser as they approached the American blue line. But while Wickenheiser didn’t seem to have her legs, she had position, and the veteran presence to shield the puck. That forced Knight to try to reach around, and when she did both players hit the ice.
Here’s the thing: In real time, I can’t imagine that anyone watching the play didn’t immediately think it was going to be a penalty shot; Wickenheiser is on a clear break and Knight appears to climb up her back directly from behind. But once you see the slow-motion replays, the case is less clear. Knight tried to claim that she didn’t even touch Wickenheiser, but that’s not true; the replays clearly show contact. But it’s not as much as it first looked like, and if you slow it down enough, and it’s almost a 50/50 call.
Tottman’s arm went up. And then we all waited for her to point to center ice.
Madness Scale: 100/100. A penalty shot? For Hayley Wickenheiser? In overtime? Are you freaking kidding me, hockey gods?
The Phantom Crosscheck (The Sequel)
Tottman called a two-minute minor for crosschecking.
I don’t … I can’t …
Look, this play was a lot of things. Incidental contact, maybe even helped along by a bit of embellishment from the Canadian veteran? Could be, if you’re American. Or was it what it looked like at first, a clear-cut penalty shot? Probably, if you’re Canadian.
But let’s all agree on this: It really has to be one or the other. Wickenheiser had a clear breakaway. If it’s a foul, then you have to call the penalty shot. If not, play on.
But a minor? And on top of that, a minor for crosschecking? No way. Tottman apparently decided to try to split the difference, and in doing so she didn’t even pick the right penalty to call.
Madness Scale: Tottman is British, so at this point, we have to at least consider the possibility that this whole game was really the most elaborate Monty Python sketch ever.
Canada goes to the power play. Just before the eight-minute mark, Poulin fires a slapshot that’s blocked by an American defender. It would be the last time Team USA would touch the puck.
Over the next 13 seconds, the Canadians throw it around the perimeter like they’re the Harlem Globetrotters. All four skaters touch the puck at least twice, nobody for more than a second or two. One pass becomes two becomes five becomes nine. The 10th is to Poulin, and for just a moment she has a wide-open net to shoot at. She collects the puck, looks up, and fires. Game over.
If you can, go back and watch Poulin’s celebration of her two goals. On the first, the tying goal in the third period, she reacts exactly like you’d expect, leaping into the air in an explosion of emotion. But on this one, the winner, she just slaps her stick on the ice in relief. She looks exhausted. She’s looks like she’s just glad it’s over.
Whether or not you were too probably depends on your passport. But it was likely for the best. I’m not sure any of us could have handled 12 more minutes of this stuff.
Madness Scale: The game just declared itself Sparta and kicked you down a well.