Canadians benefit from early clash
SOCHI, Russia -- The word "disarray" was applied to three-time defending champion Canada in more than one preview of the Olympic women's hockey tournament.
It wasn't an ideal lead-up for a four-peat. The Canadians entered Wednesday's game having lost four straight pre-Olympic exhibitions to the United States, three of them under new coach and former NHL veteran Kevin Dineen, who took over after Dan Church abruptly resigned in December.
Sochi marks the first Winter Games in which the two perennial title contenders have had a shot at each other in group play. Wednesday's result -- a 3-2 win for Canada -- was the customary physical and fast-paced tilt with momentum shifts that kept a boisterous, North American-heavy crowd at Shayba Arena fully engaged. Interested onlookers included NHL stars from both countries, including Sidney Crosby and Ryan Kesler.
In a rivalry where the margins can often be measured by ice shavings, the Canadian players may have benefited from the fact that this matchup -- the only speed bump on the map before the medal rounds -- meant more because it provided a means of reasserting dominance.
Canada broke through in the third period with two no-question-about-it goals by Meghan Agosta-Marciano on her 27th birthday that bookended a dubious ruling on a goal by ageless 35-year-old Hayley Wickenheiser. The triple gold medalists clinched the top seed in a group stacked with the world's four best teams, but more critically, they restored their sense of Olympic business as usual.
"I thought we were thoroughly outplayed until 10 minutes into the second period, and then we got our stuff together and got moving in the third," said Dineen, who is giving his team a day off Thursday.
Canada and the United States both get byes through the quarterfinals. The Americans have four days to correct course and prepare for a semifinal opponent to be determined Thursday and then a hoped-for gold-medal rematch against Canada. As U.S. coach Katey Stone said with decided understatement, her team will not be in "vacation mode" during that break.
Veteran U.S. forward Julie Chu said there was no happy hangover from the streak of wins in late 2013 and noted the Winter Games mark "a new season."
"I don't know if they were due," she said. "I like to think that every night we play we have a chance to win when we step on the ice. It's not statistics out there in the cosmos; it's the effort we put in and the execution we have."
Both of those fell somewhat short in Stone's estimation.
"I feel a little indifferent about how our team played today," she said. "Our defensive support in our own end today was not what it's typically been in the last few months."
Stone said that porousness, rather than the performance of goaltender Jessie Vetter, was her chief concern.
"We made some mistakes, and we need to play better in front of her," said the coach, who said she has not decided who she will tap to start the Americans' next game, Vetter or Molly Schaus.
Vetter made 28 saves in a rigorous day and had to recover from a highly questionable call on the go-ahead goal by Canada in the third period. A shot by Canada's elder but still effective stateswoman Wickenheiser slipped behind Vetter and briefly out of sight as she and forward Alex Carpenter scrambled in an unsuccessful effort to reach it.
By the time it crossed the line, Finnish referee Anna Eskola had blown her whistle -- at least by consensus of the U.S. players and Stone, who was unequivocal in her recollection -- but the call stood after review.
Forward Hilary Knight, who struck for the U.S. in the second period, was acerbic on the subject.
"What sport allows that?" she asked reporters after the game.
The U.S. appeared sapped by the turn of events but kicked up its energy level and managed a late power-play goal by defenseman Anne Schleper.
Stone didn't duck questions about the whistle that wasn't but also didn't want to dwell on it.
"I told our players regardless of what happened [on the call], we had to be ready," she said. "There was a lot of time left in the game at that point. I'm not going to hang my hat on that."
Chu, a four-time Olympian, said the team won't have any problems staying positive.
"We have a chance to recover and watch playbacks for the next four days," Chu said. "Now we just need to stick together and have faith we can keep on fighting."