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Loss to Canada shows Team USA has work to do

First punch, counterpunch, combination.

Whatever it threw, Team Canada delivered it with more dramatic effect Friday night, and as a result its 5-2 victory over the United States in front of a Spokane Arena crowd of 5,427 really wasn’t much of a fight.

Still, it’s a long way to Vancouver and the Olympic Games.

That’s where the Canadians and Team USA are expected to meet for the gold medal in women’s hockey, although the evidence from their exhibition stop in Spokane suggests the Americans have some work to do.

“Obviously, we want to play our best game in February,” said Team USA veteran Jenny Potter. “These are losses we don’t want, but it’s better to lose now than when it matters. This is a learning process.”

Caroline Ouellette had back-to-back goals just 96 seconds apart on an extended power play in the second period, breaking open a one-goal game and giving the Canadians their second win in a row over Team USA after losing to the Americans twice last month in the Hockey Canada Cup.

“We lost a couple of hockey games, but they’re hockey games,” said Canada’s Haley Irwin. “You’re going to lose them along the way.”

Team USA lost this one on two demoralizing exchanges.

After Meghan Agosta had given Canada a 1-0 lead at the 17:47 mark of the first period with her fifth goal in the four games against the U.S., the Americans evened it – Gigi Marvin sweeping in a rebound from her knees just six seconds into a power-play opportunity.

But in the space of a mere 19 seconds, Canada won the face-off and Irwin – “just whacking away at the puck” – nudged it past Team USA goaltender Jessie Vetter for a 2-1 lead at the first break.

“The game is momentum,” said Team USA coach Mark Johnson, “and the momentum we had was deflated.”

The Americans had a chance to get it back with a power-play chance just 14 seconds into the second period, but created nothing – and then got snowed under. Penalties to Monique Lamour and Lisa Chesson gave Canada a 32-second 5-on-3, and Ouellette cashed in on a shot that dribbled off Vetter’s pads, then followed up with point-blank goal on a pretty feed from Jayna Hefford from behind the net just before the end of the 5-on-4.

“To get a shot from the slot is pretty rare,” she said, “and it’s hard for any goalie to stop.”

Vetter had her moments – turning back Haley Wickenheiser on a breakaway among them – but was victimized by some unsightly turnovers in the Team USA zone and defender Caitlin Cahow’s dropped stick on Irwin’s goal. The Americans were also outshot for the third straight game against the Canadians – who while acknowledging that these are just practice games, they do have the motivation of having lost the last two world championships to Team USA.

“The last two years have been a bit of a wake-up call,” Hefford said. “We haven’t been happy with our performance.”

Four games against the Canadians remain in Team USA’s current Qwest Tour, and another before those in the Four Nations Cup in Finland next month – “a chance to play for a championship,” as Johnson noted, and not just another friendly.

“There’s no medal for this game – just pride,” said Potter, who scored the game’s final goal. “As much as we hate to lose, especially in our home country, all we can do is get back to the chalkboard and learn from it. We need to have a little more pride in not turning pucks over and battling for everything.”