SOCHI, Russia – The U.S. women's hockey players didn't feel like they won a silver medal as much they lost a gold medal.
They were within 3:26 of owning an Olympic gold medal and then suddenly their dream was gone, dashed by a 3-2 overtime loss to Canada.
"We were just so focused on doing our job and not letting what happened happen," U.S. forward Kelli Stack said. "And I don't know how it happened. I'm shocked."
Again the Americans tried to measure up to Canada, and they were an inch short. With 1:25 left in the game, Stack's attempted clearing pass hit the post on an empty Canada net.
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"When I first let it go, I thought it had a chance," Stack said. "But when it crossed the blue line, I thought it was going to hit the post."
It might seem like the Americans lost on a bounce, but the collapse was symbolic of the difference between Canada and the USA in women's hockey. At the Olympics, Canada always finds a way to win, while the Americans are still trying to figure out how to close the deal.
Marie-Philip Poulin scored a 4-on-3 power play goal at 8:10 of overtime to cap one of the memorable comebacks in women's hockey history. Trailing 2-0, Canada got a goal from Brianne Jenner with 3:26 left on a shot that caromed off the knee of Kacey Bellamy. Then Poulin tied the game with 54.6 seconds left.
"We kind of let down defensively a little bit," said U.S. forward Alex Carpenter. "We let in two soft goals. It is so hard to explain."
What we know is that it is not luck that has allowed Canada to win four gold medals. The Canadians clearly possess an intangible advantage that the Americans don't own. It doesn't appear to be talent, coaching or desire. Mental toughness seems to be the answer. When the game is on the line, Canada always rises up.
The USA won in 1998 when women's hockey was first introduced at the Olympics, and Canada has won in 2002, 2006, 2010 and now 2014.
The two programs are similar in terms of talent, work ethic and preparation, and they are miles ahead of other countries. But Canada continues to have an edge in confidence and perhaps the mental toughness that helps teams close out an opponent. The Americans might be temporarily stuck in a period where they are trying to win, and hoping to win, while the Canadians are expecting to win.
"Leading up to the game, we talked a lot about how we felt this team was different," Stack said. "We were more prepared and focused. We thought a lot about that 1998."
But the Americans weren't able to find the confidence, or moxie, they needed when their lead began to unravel.
"You just need a little play and momentum of the game gets so switched around," Canadian defender Catherine Ward said. "With that one goal we got, they were on their heels and we just kept pressuring."
The Americans are trying to find that extra layer of bravado that the Canadians possess. They are close. We know that because the Americans have won four of the last five world championships. But the Canadians seem to be inside their heads in Olympic competition.
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It feels as if the American women need one Olympic title to get them soaring, similar to what the U.S. men experienced after the World Cup triumph in 1996. The American men's program had a swagger after they downed Canada in Montreal for the World Cup. Right now, in women's hockey, only the Canadians have that swagger.
"When you let other factors come in, it can bounce either way," said U.S. winger Hilary Knight. "It's heartbreaking. You go four years and you think you have the game in the bag, but something happens. It's unfortunate. But this group has represented our country at an outstanding level. So I can't be too heartbroken about it."
The craziness just to get Poulin's moment of Olympic glory was amazing in itself.
In the overtime period, which is played 4-on-4, the Americans got a power play when Ward was called for cross-checking Anne Schleper. The Americans immediately had a scoring chance, but goalie Shannon Szabados grabbed the puck.
Jocelyne Lamoureux tried to knock the puck loose, and earned a two-minute slashing penalty.
It was then a 3-on-3 game when the Americans fed a pass to Schleper in the high slot area of the Canada zone. She fell down, and that left Hayley Wickenheiser on a breakaway.
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U.S. forward Hilary Knight caught her from behind, and she went down. Knight got a penalty. Poulin scored.
"I didn't touch her," Knight said. "She fell. It was a bogus call. But it didn't (come down) to one call. We had plenty of opportunity to put the puck in the back of the net."
U.S. captain Meghan Duggan scored one goal in the second period and Carpenter added one in the third to give USA a 2-0 lead that it should have held but didn't.
"It was awesome to get a two-goal lead, but I always cringe at a two-goal lead because for some reason we always let them come back," Stack said.
At some point, the Americans will find a way to repair a dam before it bursts. But it wasn't this year.
Follow Kevin Allen on Twitter @ByKevinAllen