One look at U.S. forward Brianna Decker's face, sweaty and frowning after her team's 2-1 loss to Canada on Thursday dispelled the notion that the teams' preliminary-round finale at Kwandong Hockey Centre meant nothing because both had clinched spots in the Olympic tournament semifinals.
One glance at the pushing and shoving at the end, one look at the rueful expression of U.S. forward Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and the happy smile of Canada goalie Genevieve Lacasse, who foiled a penalty shot by Lamoureux-Davidson in the second period while making 44 total saves, and there could be no doubt how much this matchup meant to the pride and sense of history of players on both sides of a rivalry that has carried women's hockey so well for so long.
"It's the two giants of the world of hockey colliding," said U.S. forward Hilary Knight, who had a chance to tie the score in the waning seconds but missed a swipe at a rapidly moving pass during a frantic scramble. "It's a great game. It's a lot of fun and there's a different level of compete."
At stake Thursday was playoff seeding, not an Olympic gold medal, although these teams almost certainly will meet in the final for a third consecutive time and keep the championship in North America. There have been only six women's Olympic hockey tournaments: the first was at Nagano, Japan, in 1998 and was won by the U.S. but Canada has won the rest. And despite occasional promising showings from Finland and Sweden and, lately, Switzerland, the top step of the medal stand more than likely will be occupied by Canada or the U.S.
The two superpowers will rest up for the semifinals while the other six teams will battle in the quarterfinals. The winners of the two quarterfinals advance to the semifinals. Canada (3-0) will have a higher seeding than the U.S. (2-1).
Neither team scored in the first period, but Canada broke through at 7 minutes 18 seconds of the second period. U.S. defenseman Megan Keller was serving an interference penalty when forward Meghan Agosta, a Vancouver police constable, took a fine pass from Natalie Spooner and beat goalie Maddie Rooney from close range.
Canada extended its lead to 2-0 at 14:56 of the second period when Sarah Nurse, skating up the left side, unleashed a shot from the circle that caught Rooney on the shoulder and popped up and under the crossbar. Nurse is a cousin of defenseman Darnell Nurse of the NHL's Edmonton Oilers.
The Americans were awarded a penalty shot at 16:08 of the second period after Canada's Haley Irwin closed her hand on the puck in the crease, but Lamoureux-Davidson said she thought her backhander caught the knob of Lacasse's stick. Another good chance, this one by Decker during a power play, rang off the right post.
"We take what we can and build off of it. The things we need to fix, we have to get better at that. We have to take the positives where we can," Lamoureux-Davidson said. "We've got to bury our chances. We had a lot of shots on net and a lot of opportunities and some loose pucks around the net and we were just a few inches off on a lot of them."
Canada, which has won the teams' last five Olympic matchups, found fault in its performance, although it gave up only Kendall Coyne's goal from the left circle 23 seconds into the third period.
"I don't think we can give them all those shots next time we face them," forward Blayre Turnbull said.
The semifinals will be played Monday, giving the U.S. plenty of time to review, analyze and correct what didn't go as they'd hoped Thursday. But they already know the major problem they must remedy if they want to win their next meeting with Canada, which will have far greater implications than Thursday's game. Their matchups often seem to come down to one goal or one play, and the U.S. has come out on the short end lately.
"It's a really humbling game," Knight said. "But at the same time we had plenty of opportunities to bury the puck and we just didn't do it. That's unfortunate, but at the same time we had those opportunities so we're creating chances for ourselves and we're excited for the next game. It's just executing and putting the puck in the back of the net."