Think of it as a genre film—a Western that comes to a head in a climactic, end-of-movie gunfight. You watch because you’re not sure who’ll prevail, or because even predictable gunfights are entertaining. But in general, you know what’s coming.
Because wish as we might that some wintery country has seen opportunity in women’s hockey—that it has invested in its players, taught the game and expanded the two-team league that is the quadrennial gold-medal match—it just never seems to happen, and we’re four Olympiads into this event.
As a colleague who has covered many a women’s tournament remarked early in these Games: it’s not that other countries haven’t improved; it’s that Canada and the U.S. have improved more quickly, so the gap that was so great 16 years ago in Nagano seems just as vast today.
This not to detract from a gutsy performance on the part of the Swiss, who more than weathering a 48-shot barrage by Canada in Monday’s semifinal, actually got some scoring chances of their own in a 3-1 loss.
You had a sense of their resolve early in the first, when Sara Benz, a tiny but speedy forward, got a partial breakaway and forced Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados to make a sharp blocker save.
But by 7:29 into the frame, Natalie Spooner—a 23-year-old who shows tantalizing flashes of Wickenheiser-calibre greatness—had circled out front and fired one over the shoulder of Swiss goalie Florence Schelling for her first of two goals on the night. Her second came three and a-half minutes later, when she tipped a Catherine Ward point shot. Then, just 23 seconds later, forward Melodie Daoust jammed one in to make it 3-0.
Yes, Swiss forward Jessica Lutz’s goal, which came on a scrambly play after Canada got into penalty trouble, made it look close. And yes, Schelling rallied stopping Spooner on a breakaway late in the second and flat-0ut robbed Marie-Philip Poulin on a one-timer.
But if the Canadians seemed disorganized at times, they were never really danger. And later, in the mixed zones where players speak with reporters, it was clear they’d moved on in their heads to Thursday’s gold-medal game with the U.S. It will be a rematch not just of Canada’s hard-fought 3-2 victory over the Americans during the preliminary round, they noted, but of four past Olympic gold-medal games, the last three of which Canada has won.
“The Americans are always a tough team to play against, and you never know what you’re going to get from them,” said Spooner. “I’m sure they weren’t happy with losing. They’re going to get even better, so we better up our game, too.”
As ever, the bad blood runs thick.
Two fights in the tune-up series they played loom large in the collective memories of both teams, and U.S. players suggested after their 6-1 quarter-final rout of Sweden that their thirst for revenge reaches all the way back to the 2010 Games.
“From the moment the buzzer went in Vancouver, we have prepared for this,” said forward Julie Chu. “To earn the right to get there has been huge for our team.”
Added forward Meghan Duggan: “It doesn’t matter that we lost to them in the preliminary round. We’ve played them eight times in six months. We beat them four times before we got to the Olympics, but none of that matters.”
So here we are, back in town with the tumbleweeds blowing through, and two gunslingers about to settle a score that now goes back well-nigh a generation.
It could get settled quickly and cleanly. Or it could get ugly, going to the bitter end in a messy shoot-out. But it’s the match-up that makes the charade of preliminaries worth it, and at least we need no longer worry about the damage to hapless interlopers who get in the way of the main protagonists.
From this point on, it’s just the two of them.
Monday, February 17, 2014