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U.S. women’s hockey has maple beef after loss to Canada

Canada's Hayley Wickenheiser (C-R) celebrates after scoring goal during Women's Ice Hockey Group A match between CanadUSA Sochi Winter Olympics

Canada's Hayley Wickenheiser (C-R) celebrates after scoring a goal during the Women's Ice Hockey Group A match between Canada and USA at the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 12, 2014 at the Shayba Arena. AFP PHOTO / JONATHAN NACKSTRANDJONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images ORG XMIT: 461427075

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Updated: February 13, 2014 12:12AM

SOCHI, Russia — Moments after walking off the ice at Shayba Arena following a tense and controversial 3-2 loss to bitter rival Canada in Wednesday’s last preliminary-round game, U.S. women’s hockey player Anne Schleper said what she’s supposed to say — that every game matters, that every opponent is equal, that “any loss is terrible.”

“There’s no bad blood,” Schleper said. “It’s obviously intense, but we just do our best to bring it every single time, and obviously they do, as well. Once we’re on the ice, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is.”

Yeah. Sure.

In recent years, the only two powers in women’s hockey — the United States won the first gold medal in 1998, and the Canadians have won all three since and now have won 18 straight Olympic games — have become almost comic-book-level arch-nemeses. And in the ramp-up to the Sochi Olympics, the border battle has escalated into one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports.

The teams played a seven-game series of exhibitions in recent months to tune up and drum up excitement for the Winter Games. Canada won the first three, then the United States won the next four. There was a fight — a rarity in women’s hockey, which doesn’t even permit body checks — in a game in October. Then there was an all-out line brawl in December that, oddly enough, put the skill- and speed-based sport on the map.

“I think it’s always intense, gold medal or not, no one wants to give an inch,” Canadian star Hayley Wickenheiser said. “We are the two best teams. We push each other, and the fans love it. It’s good for women’s hockey.”

Wickenheiser, a two-time Olympic MVP and the icon of her sport, scored a disputed goal that proved to make the difference. After tense two periods filled with good chances and even better goaltending by American Jessie Vetter and Canadian Charline Labonte, the U.S. team led 1-0 on Hilary Knight’s deflection of a Schleper shot on a power play.

But Meghan Agosta-Marciano, on her 27th birthday, scored a power-play goal at 2:21 of the third period to tie it. Ninety-three seconds later, Wickenheiser took a shot from the right circle that Vetter tried to cover. Finnish referee Anna Eskola lost sight of the puck and apparently blew the whistle just before the puck slid across the goal line.

Replays seemed to indicate the whistle had blown, but a review upheld the goal, and Canada had a 2-1 lead, sending a packed Shayba Arena into bedlam.

“There was a whistle on the ice, definitely,” Knight said. “We play to the whistle. That’s why a lot of the U.S. players stopped. I don’t know if they have audio in their review, but that was not the right way for us to go out. … I heard it, but I guess you’ve got to play through the whistle, right?”

The Americans appeared rattled after that, and Canada controlled play. When Agosta scored again on a breakaway with 5:05 left, Canada had three goals in the third, and the Americans didn’t even have a shot on goal.

But the U.S. team woke up late, and Schleper made it a one-goal game with 65 seconds left. But that was as close as the Americans got, giving the supposedly foundering Canadian team an edge and confidence heading into the semifinals, where it holds the top seed.

“Coming into the Olympics, we were a little down after losing that many games to the United States,” Canada defenseman Laura Fortino said. “But getting this certainly builds our confidence, and we’re exactly where we want to be, going 3-0 in the preliminaries, so we’re really happy. But we know we’ve got to keep improving and getting better.”

That’s because the Americans surely will be waiting again. The gold-medal game is next Thursday, and the two superpowers likely will collide again.


Twitter: @marklazerus

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