SOCHI, Russia -- A game they waited four years to play.
A team painstakingly built with a gold medal in mind.
A dream of not just avenging a heartbreaking loss in the previous Olympic tournament but fulfilling the grand potential they had shown in recent days.
And, at the end of the night, all the American hockey players could do was to stare up at the score clock at the Bolshoy Ice Dome and wonder how they could have come up one goal short.
Canada 1, United States 0.
This time, there would be no dramatic late-game reprieve as there was four years ago in Vancouver when Zach Parise tied the gold-medal game 2-2 in the final minute, the goaltender on the bench, ultimately setting the stage for Sidney Crosby's golden goal in overtime.
On this night, there were no late-game heroics.
Indeed, the U.S. never really created anything approaching a tying goal in the final moments as Canada's superlative team defense kept the American attackers neutralized and at bay.
For a collection of players that had created an identity in Sochi as a deep, dangerous team that could hurt you from anywhere in the lineup, the Americans came up far short of that kind of performance, often too cute with the puck, often a step out of sync against a blazing-fast Canadian team.
Meanwhile, a Canadian team that had struggled to find its offensive rhythm all tournament -- having scored just 13 goals, seven of which were by defensemen Drew Doughty and Shea Weber -- delivered the more dangerous of the chances and, in the end, it was Jamie Benn who scored all the goals Canada would need to advance to a gold-medal game Sunday against Sweden.
"At the moment, there's a great conglomeration of both," said U.S. center and St. Louis Blues captain David Backes. "We had an awesome opportunity. I don't think we laid it all on the line the way we want to, the way that we needed to. Obviously, 1-0 game in the semifinal against your rival country, it's a sour taste, for sure."
The U.S. will have to satisfy itself with a chance at a bronze medal. To be sure, it will be a difficult challenge to walk away from this one-goal loss to its biggest international rival and refocus on beating a diligent, disciplined Finnish team Saturday night.
"It's not easy. But you're certainly going to see our best tomorrow night," said Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler, who has had a strong tournament for the U.S. "We're not a team that's going to be knocked down and not respond the next day.
"So, going up against a good Finland team, we still have something to play for. It's not, obviously, what we wanted, but there's a still a medal we can go home with. We're going to play it just as if it's the gold-medal game."
Make no mistake, this was a terrific hockey game. You knew it would be. Just as it seemed preordained that, at some point in this tournament, the two teams would meet, it was likewise preordained that the clash would be something special. The pace was incredible at times, with players on both sides finding seams on the big ice, trying to stretch the zones and create scoring chances.
"They came at us with 20 guys," said U.S. coach Dan Bylsma, who juggled his lines as the game wore on, trying to find some elixir to generate a tying goal. "They came at us with speed and they came at us for 60 minutes, and that was a fast game. That was as fast a game as I've ever been a part of. There was lots of speed out there, up and down the ice, and we weren't able to counter that as much as we'd like."
Blake Wheeler, who did not play at all in the first two periods, did get in a couple of shifts in James van Riemsdyk's place with Phil Kessel and Joe Pavelski. Although Kessel had an early good chance breaking in from the right, he was not in the same groove that had seen him lead the tournament in scoring, playing most of the night against the Canadian line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Marleau and Jeff Carter.
"We didn't really create much offense," said Patrick Kane, who has struggled to generate offense since early in the tournament and still has yet to score in five games, even though he had three shots Friday. "On the chances we did have, their goalie made some good saves. It's a little disappointing. We knew it was going to be a tough game. No one said it was going to be easy. I think everyone expected a tight-checking game, but to say we would have gotten shut out, I don't think anyone would have thought that."
"It was a great, great game by both teams, I think," Fowler said. "They had their fair share of chances. Quickie stood on his head for us, made some big saves, and I thought we had some good scoring opportunities, too. Unfortunately, we couldn't get one to go. It's a one-goal game. Those are two great hockey teams playing, the best players in the world. I didn't think it was a lack of effort. I'm proud of the way that we battled, and credit to them for the way that they played tonight."
The U.S. was playing without second-pair defenseman Paul Martin, who suffered a hand injury and will be unavailable for the bronze-medal game. His place in the lineup was taken by John Carlson, who paired with Martin's normal defense partner, Brooks Orpik. On the Benn goal, Orpik and Carlson were on the ice and Benn found a seam in the slot and redirected a nice Jay Bouwmeester pass into the net. That's how fine the line is or was between these two teams.
Canada had two power-play chances and did not score. The U.S. had three, and the failure to capitalize on them was also a contributing factor in this heart-wrenching defeat.
"Certainly, they came at us with a lot of pressure on the penalty kill and we didn't really have a great response to that," Backes said. "[We] tried to be cute when they're pressuring. You've got to play harder and really get into a grind game and play a 5-on-5 almost type mentality when they're pressuring. We didn't do that; we got cute, and they sent it down the ice time after time."
In some ways, the teams' roles were reversed from four years ago. Four years ago, the question was whether the U.S. could keep up offensively with a talented Canadian squad. In Sochi, the U.S. set the standard offensively with 20 goals in its first four games, seven more than Canada.
"They played that grinding kind of game a little bit better than we did," Backes said. "And the result is a 1-0 game. My line's on the ice for that goal against, and [I] feel some real responsibility for that and, unfortunately, didn't create enough to get that one back tonight."
In earlier games, the U.S. displayed an impressive combination of skill and grit that produced glittering scoring chances all four games. But the Canadians, by far the best defensive team in the tournament, didn't allow that to happen Friday.
"They played well. We didn't do enough to get traffic in front of [Price] and find second, third chances where we've been scoring pucks all around the paint all tournament," Backes added. "And [we] didn't do that tonight, and the result is that he sees a lot of pucks and catches them, kills plays, gets faceoffs and we don't get that sustained zone time that we needed to create goals and [Price] gets a goose egg tonight. It's tough to win when you don't score goals."
The bronze-medal game is historically a great test of character, demanding that teams quickly put aside disappointment and anger from a semifinal loss and refocus on a new challenge. If the Americans learned a hard lesson once again from their Canadian colleagues in the semifinal game, it will be interesting to see whether what was learned can be applied against Finland.
"It's one more time to wear this red, white and blue for our country and hopefully bring home some hardware and do it proud," Backes said. "That's really what our sights are on now. It's obviously a sick feeling that we didn't get the job done tonight but we've got one more chance to ? make this trip worth it."