Right on time, Marie-Philip Poulin showed up to save Canada's bacon.
The breakout star in Vancouver was a saviour in the women's hockey gold-medal game, scoring with 55 seconds left to force overtime just moments after a Team USA shot at Team Canada's empty net hit the post. Hobbled by a high ankle sprain that benched her for all but the team's last two games before leaving for Sochi, and held to just one tally through Team Canada's first four games at the Sochi Olympics, Poulin corralled Rebecca Johnston's centering pass, feinted and flipped the puck over Jessie Vetter's right pad.
And that was merely an appetizer for a breathless overtime session that was probably inevitable for the North American titans, who also needed extra time at the worlds two years ago. Following some more bacon-saving stops from Shannon Szabados, the teams were playing 3-on-3 when a U.S. giveaway led to Hilary Knight hauling down Hayley Wickenheiser on a breakaway. On the enusing power play, Poulin wired a shot in to cap an improbable 3-2 comeback victory in perhaps the tensest women's hockey game ever played.
The goal gave Canada its country's fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal and completed a remarkable turnaround for a team that had a coaching shake-up exactly 10 weeks ago. Wickenheiser, captain Caroline Ouellette and Jayna Hefford became the first hockey players to win four consecutive golds.
"It's our conditioning and our heart," wing Brianne Jenner, who scored the first goal of the comeback, said to CBC. "Kudos to them, they're a great team ... Kevin [Dineen] kept an even keel."
Team USA had an apparently firm grip on the game through 56 minutes, leading 2-0 by virtue of a second-period screen-shot goal by captain Meghan Duggan and a power-play tap-in tally by Alex Carpenter 2:01 into the third. Coach Kevin Dineen, who stepped behind the bench after Dan Church resigned in December, began line-juggling and shortening his bench. With 3:26 left, defender Meaghan Mikkelson, playing with a broken right hand, head-manned the puck to a Jenner, who cut into the slot and picked a top corner over Vetter.
With 90 seconds left, after Catherine Ward got tangled up with a linesman at the U.S. blueline, a clearing attempt escaped the American zone. It hit the post, averting what would have been a controversial finish and giving both teams a chance to write a better climax.
Would love to see a best of 7 annual showdown between Team Canada and Team USA women. Probably can't match this moment but would be great.
— Chris Cuthbert (@CCtsn) February 20, 2014
— MoniKa Platek (@MonikaPlatek) February 20, 2014
The win capped off a nasty build-up to the final. The intense rivalry jumped up a notch after Team USA won the worlds on Canadian ice for the first time last April in Ottawa, then ratcheted up higher when the teams twice had line brawls during pre-Olympic competition.
Canada, in what might be a last stand for Hefford, Ouellette and Wickenheiser, the only holdovers from that inaugural tourney back in '98, settled in reasonably well once it adjusted to the U.S. tempo.
Americans went up by two
Szabados, who shut out the U.S. in the 2010 gold-medal game, delivered a characteristically superlative first period to hold a 0-0 scoreline. The veteran goalie's best stop was a glove save when Anne Schleper stepped into a slapshot from the high slot in the third minute. Schleper came up with a big defensive play minutes later, tipping a pass away from Meghan Agosta-Marciano to negate an odd-woman rush.
Canada, which did not score until the third period during its preliminary round games both vs. the Americans and Finland, succeeded at slowing the game down its preferred pace in the second period. The U.S. dug in, blocking shots left and right. Just after the 12-minute mark of the period, Canada defender Catherine Ward had a turnover in the neutral zone. Duggan gained the zone, waited while Chu and Tara Watchorn began jousting in front of Szabados and formed a screen, then picked a corner over the goalie's glove.
Late in that period, Canada was on the power play for 3½ minutes thanks to consecutive U.S. penalties. The Americans weathered the storm as Gigi Marvin, the defender who converted from forward in order to keep her national team spot, came with a timely clear and a shot block.
Coming into the final 20, the U.S. had received the last four penalties. Off the opening faceoff, Watchorn, who had received two body checking penalties earlier in the tilt, tripped a U.S. forward at her own blueline, putting the U.S. power play on the ice. Canada survived the first 1:45 of the disadvantage, before its fatigued penalty killers left Carpenter open at the left of the goalmouth for a tap-in.
Vetter (28 saves) was scarcely forced to make quality saves during the minutes leaduing up to Jenner's goal. Yet that tally resuscitated Canada's hopes.
Szabados, who made 27 saves while winning her second gold medal as Canada's starting goalie, came up large with a string of stops in the first minute of OT when the U.S. went for the quick knockout.
At 6:09, the U.S. power play, which scored six goals in the tournament, received a golden opportunity to win when Ward was sent off for cross-checking Schleper during a goalmouth scramble. However, referee Joy Tottman quickly made an even-up call, sending Jocelyne Lamoureux off for slashing Szabados after she smothered a U.S. shot. Lamoureux had been warned earlier in the game not to slash Szabados after whistles.
That created a rare 3-on-3, which based on form, ought to have favoured the quicker Americans. Yet a pass just inside the blue line went awry, putting Wickenheiser on a 130-foot breakaway. Knight knocked down the 36-year-old veteran, forcing Tottman to call a cross-checking penalty. Given the opening, Poulin, often hailed as the female Sidney Crosby, buried the golden goal.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.