They took away her ‘C', but they didn't take away her heart.
Hayley Wickenheiser, the greatest women's hockey player ever, stole the show as Canada defeated the United States 3-2 in a thrilling nail-biter preliminary game in Sochi Wednesday.
Wickenheiser set up Canada's first goal of the game on a nifty pass to Meghan Agosta-Marciano and then scored her second goal of the 2014 Winter Olympics – the 18th of her Olympic career. Not only that, the 35-year-old Wickenheiser played a strong defensive game, too, shutting down Team USA's top scorers.
It is no coincidence that in the dying seconds of the game, with the United States on the power play and its goalie on the bench in favour of an extra skater, Wickenheiser was one of the four Canadian skaters on the ice in pure defensive mode.
The victory for Canada means it avoids a tough semifinal matchup against the pesky Finnish squad. Canada defeated Finland 3-0 earlier in the tournament, but didn't score until 9:27 of the third period. The Finns are capable of pulling off an upset in this year's Olympics.
Wickenheiser, a two-time Olympic MVP, had been the captain of the Canada's national team, but it was announced by Hockey Canada prior to the Olympics that Caroline Ouellette would be the captain in Sochi. Wickenheiser was named an alternate captain. There had even been some chatter leading up to the Games she might be cut from the team.
Given how well she has played in Sochi, that would have been a dreadful mistake.
It's a team game
For Wickenheiser, it is all about the team.
“We're so close,” she said of the bitter rivalry with the United States. “Sometimes it just comes down to the team that gets a break or has more energy. I liked the energy level and determination in our game [today].”
On snapping the four-game losing streak to Team USA, Wickenheiser said, “It's a confidence booster. [Coach] Kevin Dineen has had some time to prepare for this game. He also needed time to get to know the players in our room; the strengths and weaknesses. We have all the confidence in him.”
So, with the victory over the United States, is it advantage Canada moving into the medal round?
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Certainly Canada has bragging rights following its win over Team USA.
However, history has shown what happens leading up to the Games doesn't necessarily have anything to do with who wins the gold medal. In 2002, Team USA had beaten Canada 10 times in a row, but the Canadians shocked the Americans with a 3-2 victory in the gold-medal game at Salt Lake City. It is also worth noting prior to the last three Olympic Games, the United States won the world championship only to have Canada rebound to take gold at the Olympics.
The United States certainly had a mental edge over Canada entering the game – the first time the teams had met in the preliminary round since 1998 – thanks to four straight victories over their rivals in a six-game exhibition series leading up to the Olympic Games. In 1998 in Nagano, Japan, Team USA beat Canada 7-4 in the preliminary round and 3-1 in the gold-medal game.
At the very least, Canada now knows it can skate with and beat the powerful United States club. Doing it twice in a row will not be easy.
“It felt so good,” said winning goalie Charline Labonte. “We have been struggling a bit the past couple of games against them. We have worked really hard to readjust and become a better team. They came out really strong, as expected, so I am really glad we came up with the win.”
American scoring ace Amanda Kessel was understandably dissatisfied with the final result.
"It hurts," Kessel said. "Every game matters. They didn't get to see how we can play."
A lot has been made of the fact the two teams have an intense dislike for one another – as indicated by the two line brawls in the final few exhibition games leading up to the Olympics – and it was fully on display in Wednesday's preliminary match.
Despite the fact bodychecking is illegal in women's hockey, players from both teams rode that fine line between handing out jarring hits, just hard and incidental enough so as not to cause Finnish referee Anna Eskola to penalize them. In that regard, Eskola did a fine job in allowing the game to be physical without getting goofy.
"Both teams were aggressive," said American forward Hilary Knight. You'll get our top game when we play one another and that's a great thing. We are both good teams and we are competitive."
Canada matched USA's speed and demonstrated a penchant for driving hard to the net from start to finish. If there was a concern for Canada it was the ineffectiveness of its power play. Canada entered the third period a mere 1-for-10 with the man advantage throughout the tournament. It was zero-for-three in the first 40 minutes.
However, Agosta-Marciano accepted a perfectly-placed pass from Wickenheiser and scored with America's Brianna Decker in the penalty box to tie the game 1-1 with a much-needed power-play marker. Decker had been sent off for tripping Wickenheiser.
The quarter-finals will be played Saturday and Canada will play in the semifinal Monday.