All through the Beijing Games, the unchecked swagger of Canada’s women’s hockey team had been conspicuous for all to see — and to admire, fume over and fear.
There were the humiliations of the teams that would play for the bronze medal, the edgy digs at rivals, the nuanced critiques of the failed strategies to score on Ann-Renée Desbiens, the goaltender who made the Canadian crease a fortress.
The Canadians proved Thursday that all of it was justified: They overpowered the United States in the gold medal game, 3-2, and reclaimed the Olympic crown that the Americans had wrested away four years ago.
Canada’s victory was a display of strong-armed, swarming play, blended with a few doses of luck and an angsty, furious drive that started with the Olympic loss in 2018.
The outcome was one that the Canadians had tiptoed toward predicting. To them, a gold medal often seemed less about redemption and more about simply meeting a ceaselessly high standard.
“We’ve been playing so well that when we do play our way — and not focus on other teams or focus on who we’re playing — we are unstoppable,” said Natalie Spooner, a forward on her third Canadian Olympic team.
Canada appeared to strike about seven minutes into Thursday’s game, when the American goaltender Alex Cavallini deflected a puck and saw Spooner sweep it in with a powerful shot. The United States, though, challenged that Canada had been offside, an assessment the officials upheld.
“I owe you one,” Spooner said her teammate Sarah Nurse told her on the bench. “I was offside.”
Thirty-five seconds later, the goal arrived: After Canada won a face-off, Nurse took a pass, spun and scored.
Canada doubled its lead later in the period on a shot by Marie-Philip Poulin, the Canadian captain who was playing in her fourth Games, and pushed it to 3-0 when Poulin scored again midway through the second.
Hilary Knight scored a short-handed goal for the United States late in the second, promising that the Americans would at least avoid the indignity of being shut out when a gold medal was for the taking.
A power-play goal with 13 seconds to play made the final score close. By then, though, the Canadian team knew its victory was assured.
So did the Americans.
“We wanted to just get a lot of pucks in there and actually have a lot of bodies, and I don’t think we did enough of a great job of that,” U.S. forward Abby Roque said.
Thursday’s spectacle was familiar ground, the sixth gold medal game between Canada and the United States since women’s hockey became an Olympic sport in 1998. The United States captured the first Olympic title but not another until 2018, when it won a game decided by a shootout that was seen, at least in Canada, as an aberration, not a harbinger of a power shift.
Many of the meetings leading to Thursday’s game suggested as much. The Canadians won a preliminary round game in Beijing, 4-2, and posted a 4-2 record in a series of pre-Olympic exhibition games in North America.
The teams were the unquestioned titans of the Games. Entering Thursday, Canada had scored 54 goals, an Olympic tournament record, and had three women — Brianne Jenner, Sarah Fillier and Jamie Lee Rattray — among the five top scorers in Beijing.
The United States had logged two shutout wins, and had twice defeated Finland, which won the bronze medal on Wednesday night.
Led by Kendall Coyne Schofield, the captain and one of the world’s fastest skaters, and Knight, who on Thursday set the American record for most games played by a women’s hockey player at the Olympics, the United States possessed a fearsome attack that forced rival goalies to confront a storm of shots through the tournament.
But the Americans struggled again on Thursday to turn chances into goals. At the same time, they found a Canadian squad eager — and able — to score quickly. In the first period, Canada tied the United States for shots, with 11, a marked shift from their last meeting, when the Americans had 16 attempts in the first and the Canadians managed only five.
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The United States eventually outpaced Canada in shots again, calling to mind the Canadian judgment after their first meeting that the Americans were all too happy to try to overwhelm opponents with a barrage of shots that were not always good ones.
Still, it was a strategy that worked for most of the Games. But as time faded on Thursday, with the Americans scrambling to a final soundtrack of clacking and hitting and emptying their net with more than three minutes to play, it was clear which team had shown itself to be the better one.
Just as Canada had long asserted that it would.