SOCHI, Russia -- At the Olympic Games, there are celebrated silver medals, there are disappointing silver medals and, in the case of the U.S. women's hockey team, there are silver medals that feel like lead weights around your necks.
Someday, the members of Team USA will be able to look back on what happened on Feb. 20, 2014, half a world away in a resort city on the Black Sea, and smile.
But that day is not today. And it will not be tomorrow or anytime soon.
With tears streaming down their cheeks, the Americans accepted their silver medals at the Bolshoy Ice Dome on Thursday night after blowing a 2-0 lead late in the third period and losing to Canada in the gold-medal game.
The final score was 3-2 in overtime, but it might as well have been a million to nothing.
"We were up two goals, so it's heartbreaking and shocking that we didn't win the game," said forward Kelli Stack. "It feels like a dream."
More like a very, very bad nightmare, tinged in blood red and filled with the ghosts of Hayley Wickenheiser and Marie-Philip Poulin.
The Americans came to Sochi believing they were a team of destiny, that they would erase 16 years of also-ran status at the Olympics with a joyous trip to the top of the podium. And for 561/2 minutes they played like champions, building a 2-0 lead on goals by Meghan Duggan and Alex Carpenter and inching closer and closer to their dream.
Then Canada did what it does best.
It scored big goals. It broke American hearts.
"What would we do different?" Stack asked rhetorically. "Probably score three goals and not let them catch up to us."
The final 31/2 minutes of regulation can best be described as frenetic, with the Americans perhaps panicking a bit as the Canadians seemed to take their speed and the intensity of their attack to another level. And every bounce, every break suddenly seemed to go Canada's way.
"If anything, when you're down it's desperation so you give a little bit more and they definitely did," said goalie Jessie Vetter of Cottage Grove. "I thought we responded well, but they got the bounces and took advantage of them."
A less kind way to say it would be that Team USA choked.
"I think we were just so focused on not letting them score that we tried to do too much almost," Stack said. "When you're in the 'D' zone and the puck is flying around all you want to do is go get it and knock it out of the zone. And so it's hard to stay focused on your job."
Canada finally got on the scoreboard with 3:26 left, when Brianne Jenner's shot bounced off the knee of U.S. defenseman Kacey Bellamy and skittered past Vetter.
"The first one was going wide and I think from the replay it looked like it hit somebody's butt or knee or something and deflected back in," Vetter said. "It was going wide, but they got the bounce and it ended up in the net."
As Bellamy hung her head on the bench, U.S. coach Katey Stone clapped her hands as if to say, "It's OK. No big deal. Let's go get 'em."
But it was a big deal. And it was not OK.
"I always cringe at a two-goal lead," Stack said, "just because for some reason we always let them come back."
Team Canada coach Kevin Dineen pulled goalie Shannon Szabados with 90 seconds left and moments later Stack took a shot at Canada's empty net from behind the red line. As the players on both teams and 10,639 flag-waving fans held their collective breath, the puck slid down the ice and clanged harmlessly off the left pipe.
Three inches to the right and it's 3-1, game over.
"From my angle I knew it was going to hit the post right away," Stack said. "But at the time we were still up a goal so I didn't think anything of it. I won't dwell on it too much just because we had so many other chances to score. I can dwell on all those chances, too."
Poulin scored the tying goal with 55 seconds left after Vetter tried to knock the puck away during a scramble and it wound up on the forward's stick.
"(Canada's Rebecca Johnston) threw it to the front and I deflected it to the middle and unfortunately it ended up on their player's stick and she had a little mini-breakaway in the slot," Vetter said. "At the end of the game they definitely got the bounces."
The Americans did their best to regroup before the overtime session.
"We just said we need to settle down," said forward Jocelyn Lamoureux. "With our speed, four-on-four with open ice really plays to our advantage. We were all over them in the first five minutes and then penalty, penalty, penalty, game over."
With Hilary Knight in the box for cross-checking, Canada was on the power play and passed the puck deftly around the ice until it wound up on Poulin's stick again. She knocked it in at 68:10 and just like that, it was over.
"They took advantage of a power play," Vetter said. "Four on three, there's a lot of space, a lot of open players. They moved it well and she just buried it."
Poulin also was the hero in the gold medal game four years ago in Vancouver, scoring both goals in Canada's 2-0 victory over the U.S.
"There's something there with 'Pou,'" Dineen said. "She doesn't speak a lot, but I always kind of catch her eyes and there's something in her eyes that spells big-game player. Obviously, she showed that in Vancouver and she put a major stamp on that today."
The Americans thought the call on Knight, and a slashing penalty on Lamoureux just before that, were questionable. Asked about the officiating after the game, Stone offered a "no comment" but later addressed the subject by saying, "We have to make sure every part of the game operation is developing at as fast a rate as we possibly can. We want to make sure we continue to develop every part of women's hockey."
As the U.S. players fell to their knees in disbelief, the Canadians started celebrating their fourth consecutive gold medal. Team USA won gold in 1998, when women's hockey made its Winter Games debut in Nagano, but Canada now has won 20 consecutive Olympic games and has beaten the U.S. three times in the final (2002, 2010, 2014).
"I think to be a really good athlete, team, whatever it is, you have to have a worthy opponent," Dineen said in congratulating Stone and Team USA. "This one goes down as one for the ages."
Indeed, it does. But the question must be asked: Is the gold medal game just too big for the Americans?
"I don't think the moment was too big," Stone said. "We had the game in hand. That puck that goes down the ice and hits the post, it could've been over. When those things happen you start to wonder if it is your night. We made a few fundamental mistakes in the end. But I don't believe it was too big."
Stack, speaking to reporters in the media mixed zone, said, "The hardest part is going to be going in the locker room. You take all your stuff off. Everyone's going to be sad."
Vetter was asked if Team USA was somehow cursed, destined to lose to its archrival on the biggest stage in women's hockey until the end of time.
"I hope not," she said with a sigh. "I think at some point in my lifetime I'll see the U.S. on top of that podium winning a gold medal."
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US WOMEN, CANADA