GANGNEUNG, South Korea - The puck bounced off Maddie Rooney's shinpad with a thud and bounced harmlessly away. The game was over then - the demons gone, the weight lifted. But Rooney scooped up that puck with her glove and tossed it away, as if sending 20 years of disappointments and memories and close calls with it. Rooney stopped Canadian assistant captain Meghan Agosta, the sixth shooter of what was supposed to be a five-man shootout, to give the Americans their first gold medal since 1998. Rooney was seven months old then, but with that one stop, vanquished the agony of an entire U.S. women's hockey generation. The Americans won it in a shootout, 3-2.
As they always seem to do, the United States and Canada played to overtime. After 20 minutes of four-on-four overtime, it was not over. So they went to the shootout, where Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson was the sixth American shooter to take her shot. With a deke that will live in online infamy for years, she scored, leaving the United States one stop from the thing they had not been able to attain for 20 years.
No one needed clarification when Meghan Duggan opened these Games by saying, "This is the team." Of course, this is the fourth straight team to think of itself that way.
They have no choice. In a two-titan sport, one wins and one reevaluates. Whether the difference between gold and silver was 30 seconds or three dysfunctional periods, the result is four years of soul searching. This rivalry is a novel unto itself, its characters dynamic, its moments pivotal.
But for the Americans, the Olympics had become that most dreaded of sports evils: "a thing." They beat the Canadians in the past four World Championships, and seven of the past eight. Normally, that counts for something. In this rivalry, it only served as evidence that the Americans had trouble when it mattered most, that some block existed they couldn't demolish.
When the teams met in the preliminary round, the Americans outshot Canada, 46-23, outplayed them all around. They still lost, unable to tip the tying goal home despite numerous chances. So all week in practice, for almost every moment they spent on the ice together, they shot. Their defensemen shot from the point. Their forwards created traffic, practiced getting rid of shots quickly, following them, then tipping them home. These teams express years of bottled up frustration as they wrestle for position in front of the net, and U.S. Coach Robb Stauber believed his team would win the game - or lose it - there.
It took eight minutes for the first shot on goal to come. It took longer for the first chance. But something about the first period, embodied in the questionable calls that handed the Americans three power plays in that time, gave the feeling that this might finally be the day. When Hilary Knight tipped home Sydney Morin's drive from just inside the point - just like they'd practiced - the evidence mounted.
But Knight, like Duggan, like Kacey Bellamy and the Lamoureuxs and so many others, was there when the U.S. took a two-goal lead to the final minutes in Sochi. Plot twists are forever a part of this rivalry, even if the ending has always been the same. And the inevitable turn came two minutes into the second when Canada's Haley Irwin knocked a seemingly harmless shot past Rooney, who usually would have handled it easily. Stauber proved prophetic again.
That goal dislodged the Americans' certainty. Five minutes later, Marie-Phillip Poulin - the one who broke their hearts in Sochi - poured one past Rooney, who never had a chance. That goal dislodged the Americans' composure, and replaced it with desperation. Four years ago, five minutes changed everything. Four years later, it was happening again.
But then, with her team trailing by a goal midway through the third period, Monique Lamoureux-Morando found a puck behind the Canadian defense. She fired. She scored. Four years after the Americans let a two-goal lead slip away in the final five minutes of this game, they had come back from the brink.
Overtime could have been experienced just through sound, as chance after chance - roar after roar, groan after groan - signaled the near-misses that define and decide this rivalry. But neither side could score. They headed to the shootout. After five skaters, they were tied. After six, they were not, as the next generation of American hockey stars helped the old ones return to the top.
Rooney looked up, tossed her stick and charged her teammates. After a few minutes of chaos, 7,000 miles from home, "Born in the USA" played. They held the flags as Canada stood, frozen in time, as the Americans had been so many times. A few minutes later, Angela Ruggiero, a member of the 1998 team, placed gold medals around the American necks. After all that time - 20 years, 80 minutes, and six shooters - the Americans had the gold again.