SOCHI, Russia -- A two-goal lead blown in the final four minutes. A long shot that clanged off the post of an empty net. Two perplexing penalties in overtime, setting up a golden goal for Canada.
The U.S. women's hockey team has lost late in the last four Olympics, but never in such preposterously heartbreaking fashion as this 3-2 defeat on Thursday night.
While the Canadians received their fourth straight gold medals, the Americans were left blank-faced or crying at Bolshoy Ice Dome. Sixteen years after the first generation of U.S. players won the inaugural Olympic tournament, these Americans thought Canada's Olympic mastery over them had finally waned.
Instead, they've got four more years to think about how the Canadians manage to seize their sport's biggest moment while the U.S. gets left holding silver.
"To let them come back in the gold-medal game at the Olympics is the worst feeling in the world," said Kelli Stack, who nearly became a hero with a long clearing attempt that hit the right post of an empty net late in regulation.
Stack knew she hadn't scored when she flipped the puck down the ice in the waning seconds. From her vantage point, she could tell it was going to hit the post even before that clunk of rubber against metal.
"If it would have been an inch to the right, it would have went in, and we would have won the gold medal," said Stack, shaking her head. "When pucks don't bounce your way, you've just got to know that it wasn't meant to be."
Everything seemed dramatically different in the first 56 minutes. With a 2-0 lead, U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter appeared to be eminently capable of shutting out Canada for the first time in Olympic history, and the small contingent of U.S. fans was bouncing in its seats.
"I just kept thinking 'We're going to win,' " U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said. "I looked over at one of our goaltenders, I said, 'There's no way they're going to score two goals on Vetts. She's hot right now.' "
What happened next is what Duggan calls "crazy mode" -- those frantic final minutes of a hockey game when the goalie skates to the bench and her teammates try anything to will the puck into the net.
The Bolshoy got crazy, all right. Brianne Jenner scored with 3:26 to play, banking a wide-flying shot off Kacey Bellamy's knee.
"Bad puck luck," Bellamy said.
Marie-Philip Poulin's tying goal with 54.6 seconds left in regulation was another bad break: Vetter attempted a poke-check after the puck came out from behind the net, but it somehow went straight to Poulin.
Even during the break before overtime, the Americans remained confident. Stack recalled only encouragement in the dressing room at a time when the Americans had expected to be celebrating.
And then in overtime, the whistles started.
Neither team could understand the referees' eagerness to call penalties in an Olympic overtime, which is already 4-on-4 hockey. Just 6 seconds after Canada's Catherine Ward was sent off for a big hit near the net, Jocelyne Lamoureux was penalized for slashing on a single whack at Shannon Szabados' pads with the puck underneath them.
"It stinks to go into an overtime in an up-and-down game and have so many penalties called," Stack said. "It would have been great if we could have played 4-on-4 for 20 minutes or whatever."
Moments later during 3-on-3 play, a bad U.S. line change gave a breakaway to Canada's Hayley Wickenheiser. Hilary Knight swooped in from behind, and Wickenheiser tumbled to the ice.
The officials curiously called Knight for cross-checking instead of either awarding a penalty shot or allowing play to continue. Replays showed no significant contact between the two, except perhaps Knight's right skate clipping Wickenheiser's right skate from behind -- which isn't cross-checking.
"I didn't touch her," Knight said. "She fell. That was a bogus call. But it's not about any one call."
Poulin ended it 39 seconds later.
The pain was palpable on the faces of the Americans, Canada's only rival in this young sport. The U.S. women really had seemed destined to triumph in Sochi, repeatedly playing better than the Canadians in exhibitions and tournaments. What's more, Canada coach Dan Church abruptly quit in mid-December.
Everything was in place for a U.S. breakthrough until Canada broke away again. "You can't take the sting away," coach Katey Stone said. "You just have to tell them how proud you are of them and how much they mean to you and what a tremendous privilege and honor it was to be a part of it."
Purdy: U.S. men's hockey team looks to avenge 2010 gold-medal game loss to Canada.