Injuries kept former Cornell athlete Dana Antal out of the spotlight of the Canadian national team for the better part of five years, but for a moment last night, she was the center of attention.
Antal’s gorgeous one-timer just inside the left post off a feed from Danielle Goyette 2:20 into the third period lifted Canada to a 2-1 victory over the United States in the gold medal game of the Four Nations Cup Sunday afternoon.
Charline Labonte had another spectacular performance against the U.S. with 37 saves. After a 2-1 loss that ended with a shootout in last year’s Four Nations Cup, and a tough-luck 1-1 tie on Thursday, Antal’s goal finally allowed Labonte’s efforts against the U.S. to be rewarded with a win.
Just a year ago, Antal suffered a broken leg right before the Four Nations Cup, reminiscent of when she tore her ACL immediately before the World Championships in 2000. All the rehab finally paid off this time.
“When I broke my leg last October I was in fantastic shape and I never imagined that I would sustain an injury that serious. But it takes a lot of persistence, a lot of hard work and perspective to understand if a bone is broken, it will heal. It’s great to play and have fun,” Antal said.
This U.S.-Canada battle was another penalty-filled affair, and much like the 2002 Gold Medal Game, Canada was handed the vast majority of the whistles on U.S. soil. Canada received 15 penalties to just eight for the United States, but Canada persevered as each team tallied just one power play goal. Canada’s came from Jayna Hefford just 7:56 into the game to give Canada a 1-0 lead.
This disappointing power play performance for the U.S. followed up an 0-for-10 result against Canada from Thursday. U.S. coach Ben Smith tried out new systems throughout the week but it was to no avail.
“I guess its back to the drawing board,” Smith said.
The one power play unit that was successful had a familiar look to it. It was the Minnesota power play featuring the four Gophers on the U.S. national team. The role of Minnesota freshman Bobbi Ross, not on the U.S. national team, was filled by U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero. The system worked when Natalie Darwitz backhanded in a rebound off a Kelly Stephens shot to tie the game 1-1 with just six seconds left in the first period.
“It’s good that we got to work our U of M power play, with Angela in the middle,” Darwitz said. “She definitely was a decoy and took a lot of players with her. We had a lot of chances so we were happy with that.”
Both Labonte and Brown goalie Pam Dreyer made wild saves throughout the second and third period. Labonte fought through all sorts of traffic in front of her net, especially late in the second period. She was helped by a couple of U.S. shots that went off the pipes.
The most impressive of Dreyer’s 24 saves came late in the third period, when UNH alum Samantha Holmes had an open net to shoot at after a Gillian Apps shot, but Dreyer dove back across the net to make the stop. Dreyer played so hard a shoulder injury forced her to leave the game with just under three minutes left. Recent Northeastern grad Chanda Gunn came into the game hoping to lead the U.S. back to overtime, but it was to no avail.
Apps’ shot was one of several good opportunities the younger U-22 Canadian players had in the game. They were kept off the scoreboard in the U.S. games, but they still played a role.
“Our young players did a great job in their role,” said Canada coach Melody Davidson, who is also Cornell’s coach. “A lot of times they didn’t get on the ice during a period, then they’d call them up and put the pressure on the U.S. in their end. We’re very proud of all the players in their first time here. For a lot of the U-22 players it’s the first time they’ve won one against the U.S. so it’s pretty special for them.”
The younger player with the highest-profile role for Canada was Harvard freshman Sarah Vaillancourt, who was stunned to be put on a line with veterans Hayley Wickenheiser and Danielle Goyette immediately prior to the first U.S.-Canada game.
“We didn’t even have a practice together, so that was a huge surprise,” Vaillancourt said of her placement on the top line. “You never know what’s going to happen. That’s how hockey is. That was great proof of confidence from my coach, and I brought a lot of confidence to tonight’s game.”
Although Vaillancourt did not grab the spotlight for much of these U.S.-Canada games, she’s only 19, so she still has a long future ahead of her.
“Today I was on the first line, and I was on the power play and penalty kill, and that gives me a lot of experience,” she said. “You never know when we’re going to have to be leaders.”
With the win, Canada defended itself as the premier women’s hockey power in the world, even without top players like 2003-04 NCAA top scorer Caroline Ouellette and 2004 championship MVP Jennifer Botterill. Last year’s Four Nations Cup is the only major championship win the U.S. has had over Canada since the 1998 Olympics. But the U.S. still feels its recent battles with Canada could have gone either way.
“Everyone is obviously disappointed with the loss,” said Ruggiero. “But at the same time, it gives us something to work for.”