LEKSAND, Sweden -- You could see it on the tight-lipped faces of the United States juniors as they stood along the blue line, listening to "O Canada" after a stirring semifinal at the World Junior Championships.
Disappointment, for sure. The other team's anthem is always the soundtrack to heartbreak. But puzzlement, too. As in, "What hit us?" Or, as forward Patrick Kane said, "I still can't believe it."
Fact is, though the Americans lost 2-1 in a shootout, you could make a case that they were the better team Wednesday night. And if that sounds like sour grapes, well, Canadian coach Craig Hartsburg said as much after the game.
As games go, you'd put this one in the category of gathering storms. A tense and cautious start. Then, an ending loaded with action, suspense and a controversy that even spilled over into the arena hallways.
It figured to be a classic.
Canada went undefeated and, for the most part, unthreatened through the first round of the tournament. The foundation of the team was its blue line with five defensemen, most notably New York Rangers draftee Marc Staal, back from the squad that won last year's World Juniors in Vancouver. It was no surprise that the team yielded only four goals in four opening-round games. Still, one question lingered: Where would the goals come from?
On the other side, the U.S. staggered out of the blocks, losing to Germany in overtime and Canada in opening-round games. The Americans had to beat Sweden to make it to the medal round and pulled off the win in overtime on a goal by University of Michigan defenseman Jack Johnson. But in that game and a quarterfinal victory over Finland, the American squad was clearly rounding into form, and most scouts in attendance would have told you that the U.S. had an edge in pure offensive skills against Canada.
Wednesday's semifinal matchup started off cautiously. In the first period, the officials counted 11 Canadian shots, but you might rank one of them a scoring chance if you were generous. Jeff Frazee, who was undefeated in the American net in 10 international career starts going into the semifinal, wasn't tested at all. Canadian goalie Carey Price had to flash his glove on a couple of occasions to keep the game scoreless.
The U.S. took the lead early in the second period on a power-play goal by Taylor Chorney and it looked grim for the Canadians, winners of the last two tournaments. Frazee robbed Canadian forward Bryan Little with Peter Mueller off for a hooking penalty midway through the frame. Otherwise, the U.S. defense wasn't giving up anything at even strength and Frazee was seeing the puck through Canadian screens like he was wearing X-ray specs.
The clock seemed to be running down on Canada's junior reign, but with less than eight minutes left in regulation, Luc Bourdon fired a shot from the point that went through a crowd and past Frazee. The teams exchanged chances through to the horn, with the U.S. again carrying play.
International rules call for a 10-minute sudden-death period of four-on-four play, but the high drama came four minutes into overtime, when Canadian captain Kristopher Letang took a high-sticking penalty for a run at Kyle Okposo. The Americans wheeled the puck around the perimeter and Okposo, Kane and Mueller all had scoring chances. The tally of shots in the overtime -- U.S. 12, Canada 2 -- points out what was obvious to everybody in the rink: Canada was hanging on for dear life and praying for a shootout.
"[Price] was so big for us in the four-on-three in overtime," said Canadian forward Andrew Cogliano, who plays at Michigan. "When we saw that, we though we had a good chance to win. We just hoped to God to get to the shootout."
The rules of the shootout are tangled (teams can send out repeat shooters) and confusing (the order of team shooting is supposed to flip-flop), and surely messed up in the translating (officials even admitted that the protocol wasn't properly followed). Nonetheless, the shootout was an epic. The highlight that they'll show years from now will be Price stopping Mueller and his teammates pouring over the boards. That only starts to capture the action back and forth. There were 14 shots in all, and at least nine goals.
Yes, you read that right. At least.
The point of controversy was the U.S.' fourth shootout chance. Kane, who plays against a few of the Canadian players on his London Knights team, tried to deke Price and slip the puck through the five hole. Price slid back into the net with the puck somewhere under his pads. For several seconds after the shot, nobody in the rink knew if the puck was in. No one, that is, other than the referee, Ulf Ronmark of Sweden. In his opinion, the rubber never crossed the line, and no amount of beseeching by Kane or American coach Ron Rolston was going to get the referee to call to the video review officials to check.
Even in the hallways outside the U.S. dressing room, members of the coaching staff were cornering International Ice Hockey Federation officials and showing them the play on video on the team's laptops. They'd later claim that Ronmark was so certain that the puck wasn't in that he saw no need to drag out the proceedings. That didn't satisfy members of the U.S. side, who are now looking at facing the host Swedes in Friday's bronze-medal game, while Canada advances to the final against Russia for the fifth time in six years.
"I thought it was in," said Kane, the top player in the under-20 tournament who's eligible for the 2007 NHL draft. "His pads were behind the line and when he spun the puck was back practically where his skates were. I thought the ref was going to call upstairs [to the video review officials] and I was shocked when he didn't."
"No question the shot should have been reviewed," Rolston said. "If you have [video review] at the tournament, you have to use it. In that case, when the goaltender's pads are in the net, you'd think they'd at least want to look at that. We've looked, and the goaltender's pads are three-fourths in the net. Unless he's Harry Houdini "
Ralston didn't finish the thought. It was just that type of game.
The Canadians will probably think that they escaped magically with the victory. The Americans, disbelieving, were looking at it as an illusion, a trick that would have been revealed if the play had been reviewed.
Gare Joyce is a frequent contributor to ESPN The Magazine.