When two teams are so evenly matched in just about every aspect of the game, winning and losing often comes down to the most minute of details.
On Wednesday in Sochi, one simple mistake -- covering up a loose puck in the crease -- may have cost Team USA a win against their hated rivals from the Great White North.
With the game tied at 1 in the third period, American netminder Jessie Vetter stopped a shot to her left and ended up sprawled face-down on the ice. The puck was still loose beside her as Canadians started to swarm, so teammate Alex Carpenter pushed it toward her goalie. Vetter, however, couldn't corral it with her glove, and it somehow slipped under her body, between her pads and into the net.
Initially, the goal was waived off, as it looked as if one of the referees blew her whistle before the puck crossed the goal line. But officials reviewed the play and changed the call, giving Canada the go-ahead goal.
"I had the rebound -- I thought I had it," Vetter said after the game. "I heard the whistle, and then all of a sudden I turned around and they were cheering."
The fluke goal was exactly what the Canadians wanted. Now that they had the lead, they could focus on shutting down the Americans' high-speed attack. Coach Kevin Dineen switched to a 1-4 defense so Team USA wouldn't have a chance to create odd-man rushes. Whenever an American carried the puck through center and looked up, there usually were three or four Canadians waiting for her at the blue line.
Canada made it 3-1 with five minutes to go on a breakaway by Meghan Agosta, who got the clear path on goal thanks to another small miscue by Team USA defenseman Gigi Marvin. Agosta pounced on a loose puck near her own blue line and Marvin, who was the last defenseman back, simply turned the wrong way as she retreated out of the zone, giving Agosta the time and space she needed to go one-on-one with Vetter.
The U.S. pulled Vetter in the final minutes for an extra skater, and it worked. Anne Schleper blasted a shot from the point past Canadian goalie Charline Labonte's glove with a minute left to get the United States to within one, but one final flurry before the horn sounded didn't result in the equalizer.
The loss on Wednesday won't be a back breaker for the U.S. squad. They know they can beat the Canadians on any given day. And they know the Canadians can do the same to them. Making small mistakes like they did in the 3-2 loss definitely makes these games a lot more difficult, however.
"That's just the way it goes," Vetter said of the controversial go-ahead goal by Canada. "I thought we responded well to it. We came back and gave ourselves a chance at the end of the game."
The Canadians won this round, but there likely will be another chapter in this storied rivalry in the gold-medal game -- assuming both teams make it that far. But the devil will be in the details, eh?