VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Back seven years ago, when this coastal city was awarded these Olympic Games, this would have been how nearly any Canadian citizen — from the cosmopolitan city of Vancouver to the tiny town of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia — would have drawn up the final play on the final day.

The gold medal hockey game. An arena full of maple leafs on flags, on jackets, on hats and in hearts. Overtime, with all the angst that implies. And a puck dug out of the corner, onto the stick of Sidney Crosby.

Maybe a few of the fans who packed Canada Hockey Place on Sunday might have chosen a different path, particularly when Zach Parise of the United States scored to tie the game as the entire host nation counted down to gold, delaying the moment. But in the end, it was Crosby, the kid who, almost before he became a pro, became a national hero.

Seven minutes, 40 seconds into sudden-death overtime, in the gold medal game, in his home country, Crosby yelled for a pass from Jarome Iginla, took the puck down low and fired a shot that somehow slipped between the pads of U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller, precisely the kind of play Miller had prevented from occurring so often over the previous two weeks.

The horn sounded. A country screamed. Crosby dropped his stick to the ice, threw his gloves to the air. Canada 3, United States 2, in overtime.

“Every kid dreams of that opportunity,” Crosby said. “It could have been anybody else. It could have been any other guy in that room.”

Yet it wasn’t. It was Crosby, the 22-year-old captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the kid who came to these Winter Olympics entrusted with protecting Canada’s pride in a game it considers its own. And for all the joy this goal brought to Canada — throngs danced in the streets in Whistler and Vancouver, just as a brilliant Olympics prepared to close — it brought misery to Team USA, a young group that arrived here with nothing expected of it, yet nearly won gold.

“We’re pretty devastated,” American defenseman Jack Johnson said. “In any hockey event, you lose a silver medal. You don’t win it. You win a gold, and you win a bronze. You lose a silver. It’s just the way it is.

“In time, we’re all going to be very proud of what we did, but it’s not what we came here to do.”

What they came here to do was take the performance Miller gave them, saves on 36 of the first 38 shots he faced, and ride it to the gold. When the Americans handed Canada a stunning loss a week earlier, Miller stopped 42 of 45 shots, and Canada clutched its collective chest.

Sunday was different. The Americans fell behind 2-0 on a goal in the first from Jonathan Toews and another in the second from Corey Perry. But for the most part, the United States skated evenly with Canada. And when Ryan Kesler deflected Patrick Kane’s shot past Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo with just more than seven minutes left in the second, the United States made it clear: No gold would be simply granted to Canada.

“We felt we definitely had them on the ropes,” U.S. captain Jamie Langenbrunner said.

That felt more like the case late in the third. With Miller on the bench and the Americans attacking, Kane fired a shot from the right circle that hit off Langenbrunner first, then found its way to Parise’s stick.

“You got the whole country watching,” Crosby said. “You want to win so bad. You’re staring at the clock. It’s ticking away slowly.”

It couldn’t tick away quickly enough. With 24.4 seconds remaining, Parise buried it. Tie game. On to overtime, in which the Americans believed the game would be theirs.

“We dominated in overtime,” Kesler said.

Not enough. The winning play began with Crosby’s linemate, Iginla, controlling a puck in the corner that might have been turned over to the Americans. When Iginla gained possession, he heard a voice. It was Crosby’s.

“He was yelling pretty urgently,” Iginla said.

Iginla found Crosby, who by then was alone, bearing in. Miller stepped toward him.

“I’ve been aggressive all tournament,” Miller said, “and I wasn’t going to change my game just because we were in overtime.”

To that point, Miller had faced 146 shots in the six games of this tournament. He had stopped 139 of them. But when Crosby fired this time, Miller couldn’t close his pads quickly enough. The puck trickled through, and all of Canada screamed in joy,

“You never know when you’re going to get a chance, and obviously, being in Canada, that’s an opportunity of a lifetime to play in the Olympics here and try to win a gold medal,” Crosby said. “You dream of that 1,000 times growing up, and for it to come true is pretty amazing.”

When the puck went in, the American players on the ice skated slowly, aimlessly. Parise, so nearly the hero, bent at the waist and looked at his feet, unwavering for more than a minute. As the celebration raged in the corner and in the stands and throughout the country, the American reaction made clear this was, in no way, what they arrived for.

“We were one shot shy of winning a gold medal,” Johnson said. “That’s the way it is.”

Afterward, the teams shook hands, a line in which, for the Americans, Miller was last, receiving congratulations and condolences after a performance that made him the tournament MVP.

And once the medals were presented, the entire building — and likely the entire nation — belted out the final, most important “O! Canada” of these Olympics.


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