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U.S. women capture hockey gold

Americans defeat longtime nemesis CanadaWhat it started in Salt Lake City three and a half months ago, the United States women's hockey team finished Tuesday night: overcoming longtime world champion and nemesis Canada to capture the sport's first-ever Winter Olympics medal.

And in doing so, Team USA did what any 20 red-white-and-blue-blooded American women would do - arrive fashionably late back on the Big Hat arena ice for the medal ceremony.Perhaps it was the Americans' way of enjoying the 3-1 victory in the historic women's finals - making it last longer, like eating chocolate pudding with a fork. Or perhaps it was a way to give their counterparts one last dig, a parting reminder that the U.S. finally beat Canada for an international title.

There's no love lost between the two North American neighbors. If familiarity really does breed contempt, then these two teams - the cream of the global crop - have long since had their fill of each other.

Ever since Canada edged the U.S. in overtime for the 1997 world championship, the Americans have anxiously awaited the return engagement, a chance to even the international score. And Tuesday night's gold-medal game was the 15th such recent pairing of the two teams, starting off with a 5-4 shootout victory by the U.S. back on Oct. 25 in West Valley City's E' Center.

Fourteen games later, the recent U.S.-Canada series stood even at 7-all, with eight of the 14 contests decided by a one-goal difference. And for all intents and purposes, Tuesday night's finale fit the same close-margin bill, with an empty-net U.S. goal in the final seven seconds making for the final 3-1 score.

"I think it has turned into a great showcase for women's ice hockey," said U.S. coach Ben Smith, later adding that "over the course of the tour with the Canadian team, every time we went out there it was like playing in the mirror."

This time, the Americans liked what they saw in the mirror. "I think the difference in this game was our desire to win," said American forward Laurie Baker. "We all wanted so hard to win this game - and we did."

Following a scoreless first period, the American nearly squandered a power-play opportunity in the first minute of the second period.

With single-digit seconds left in the advantage, Suzanne Merz forwarded on a corner pass to Sandra Whyte at the left point, and she in turn fed Gretchen Ulion at the right crease. Ulion rapped the puck past Manon Rheaume - Canada's goalie who was the first woman to play in an NHL exhibition game - for the game's first score with 2:38 gone in the period.

"My goal helped our team, gave us more confidence," said Ulion. "We knew it could be possible to win."

Canada had a chance to counter with two power plays in the second's final six minutes, but it never mounted a serious threat either time.

Team USA added a second power-play score midway in the third period, when Ulion sent the puck from the right side to the blue line to Whyte, who found Shelley Looney open behind Rheaume's left side.

The Canadians finally converted on a power play - needing just nine seconds of the advantage for Danielle Goyette to knock a slapshot past U.S.

goalie Sarah Tueting, making it 2-1 with less than four minutes left to play.

With Canada trying to even the score in the final minutes and the U.S.

trying to protect its one-goal lead, both teams laying on some nasty hits in a women's game that supposedly outlaws body-checking. Rheaume was pulled for an extra skater in the last 54 seconds, and at the 19:53 mark, Whyte added an empty-net goal to her two previous assists.

All that was left was the final horn, the euphoric squeals and a mass catapulting of gloves and sticks before a group-hug-turned-dogpile in front of the U.S. net.

And all the Team Canada could do was watch . . . and wait . . . and wait for the belated ceremonies to receive a second-best reward. While the Americans were weeping with joy and exchanging congratulatory hugs while receiving their gold medals, the Canadians held their heads considerably lower as they shed their own tears and shared embraces of consolation.

"It's really an empty feeling right now," said Canada coach Shannon Miller. "It's been really close in the last two years. This time they beat us in the round-robin (Saturday night's 7-4 U.S. victory) and the gold-medal game."

Added Canada defenseman Therese Brisson: "We won the silver, but we lost the gold."