Controversial goal helps Canada's women top U.S. at Olympics

Canada's Meghan Agosta-Marciano celebrates after scoring against the U.S. during their women's...

Canada's Meghan Agosta-Marciano celebrates after scoring against the U.S. during their women's hockey game at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Feb. 12, 2014. (JIM YOUNG/Reuters)

Chris Stevenson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:55 PM ET

SOCHI, RUSSIA - After months of turmoil, exhaustive training and four straight losses to the Americans, fans could be forgiven for thinking Canada’s national women’s hockey team was a longshot to defend the gold medal from Vancouver.

Battling with Finland in a scoreless tie through 50 minutes before winning 3-0 Monday might not have done much to change the minds of those who believed Canada might falter.

They still might. But Canada served notice the difficulties of recent months are behind them now with a 3-2 win Wednesday over the U.S. at a Shayba Arena filled with fans in the colours of both countries for the final game of the preliminary round

Canada (3-0) and the U.S. (2-1) advance straight to the semifinal next Monday with opponents to be determined.

Canadian veteran Hayley Wickenheiser, part of the recent controversy amid rumours about her future with the team when her captaincy was removed, keyed the win with a wonderful backhand pass to Meghan Agosta on the power play to tie the game early in the third and then was credited with a flukey one for the lead.

Agosta, celebrating her 27th birthday, added her second of the game on a breakaway with five minutes left for a 3-1 lead. She also had an assist on Wickenheiser’s goal.

“Just getting in the pressure cooker and knowing what it takes, it’s great for our team. We’ve got nine girls in their first Olympics playing in a big game like this, I thought we played with a lot of composure,” said Wickenheiser. “We didn’t panic. When we made mistakes, we just kept going.”

In addition to having the captaincy change hands, moving to Caroline Ouellette, Canada underwent a messy coaching change when Dan Church, frustrated by a lack of support from above, resigned and was replaced in December by former Florida Panthers coach Kevin Dineen.

But Canada, led by the veterans like Wickenheiser, Agosta and Ouellette and some solid goaltending by Charline Labonte, looked like the defending gold medal champions Wednesday.

They had lost the last four games of their pre-Olympic exhibition series to the Americans, but some intense off-ice training had sapped much of their stamina at the time and the players were emotionally ragged after months of being pushed hard to prepare for this big two weeks.

A 10-day retreat in Austria before the Games appears to have re-energized Team Canada.

Wednesday’s game pretty much had it all, including a controversial goal to put Canada ahead and a tense finish.

American Anne Schleper scored with 65 seconds remaining to make it 3-2 with the American net empty and the U.S. on the power play.

Wickenheiser’s goal, right on the heels of Agosta’s power-play goal to tie it two minutes into the second, was a hot topic.

It sounded like the whistle had gone before the puck, pushed under American goaltender Jessie Vetter by teammate Alex Carpenter, went over the line.

“A lot of us thought the whistle went. That’s what it sounded like and looked like, but it is what it is,” said American defenceman Gigi Marvin. “That happened early in the period. We’ve got to be able to bounce back from that.”

The U.S. and Canada are far ahead of the pack in women’s hockey and are destined to crash together in the final, as they have in all but one of the four Olympics of which women’s hockey has been a part.

“It was one of the fastest (games) I’ve been a part of,” said Ouellette. “There were a lot of great plays, great passing. I thought our best players were our best players. They really made a difference. Charline was tall in the net. I’m really proud of our team’s effort. We did all the little things right.”

The Americans vowed to be better next time.

“I feel a little indifferent about how our team played today,” said U.S. coach Katey Stone.

She was about the only person feeling that way after watching the game.

It was good.

And there’s the promise of even better.

BIRTHDAY BASH

Meghan Agosta should have her birthday more often.

The Team Canada veteran had three points -- including two goals -- as she celebrated her 27th birthday with a 3-2 win over the USA in the final game of the women's preliminary round.

Eight years ago in Italy on her birthday at the 2006 Winter Olympics, she bagged a hat trick against Russia.

"Every Olympics is different," she said. "That was my first Olympics. It was a dream come true to be there and represent Canada at such a young age. You know what? Being here it's another celebration. It's a new team and a new year.

"It's such an unbelievable feeling. It never gets old. Representing Canada, it's an honour in itself. I'm just so proud to be a Canadian, so proud to wear this jersey for my third Olympics in a row.

Agosta took a wonderful feed from linemate and fellow veteran Hayley Wickenheiser to open the scoring for Canada on the power play and tie the game early in the second.

When a rebound came to her, instead of pounding the puck back into a crowd, Wickenheiser threaded some backhand sauce to Agosta at the backdoor.

"We talked about having composure and not just throwing it at the net," said Wickenheiser, who had a goal and an assist. "I was looking to make a play and that's exactly what ended up happening. Gus and I pretty much know where each other is going to be out there.

"She's a goalscorer. We work well together. We talked before the game about what we wanted to do. We were on the same page there. If she gets the puck on her stick, she's going to bury it. She missed a couple in the previous game and it weighs on her."

Agosta's goal tied the game after Canada failed to score the opening goal at the Olympics for the first time since the gold-medal game against the Americans at the Nagano Games in 1998.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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