GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- Though the scoreboard said the United States women's hockey team beat Finland 5-0 in the Olympic semifinals Monday afternoon, the reality is the Americans defeated a pair of opponents far more daunting and worrisome at Gangneung Hockey Center: failure and disappointment.
For anything less than a victory over Finland -- and a trip to the gold-medal game against rival Canada -- would have been a crushing defeat. That's because 10 of the women on this team have worked four years for this moment. Since the crushing 3-2 overtime loss against Canada in the gold-medal game in Sochi four years ago, they've put their entire lives on hold to pursue their shot at redemption.
So, really, Monday's lopsided final score didn't mean much. Sure, 22-year-old Dani Cameranesi scored a pair of goals, giving her a team-high three in these Olympics. Yes, the U.S. dominated puck possession and again outshot its opponent by more than a 2-1 margin, 38-14. And you're right, goalie Maddie Rooney, in her fourth career Olympic start, posted her second clean sheet.
But really, the details didn't matter. After the game, the talk was more about Thursday's gold-medal opportunity than it was Monday's dominating victory. Since winning the first Olympic women's hockey tournament 20 years ago, the Americans have lost three of the past four gold-medal games. They played for bronze in 2006.
"You literally train four years for one game," said Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson, who also scored Monday. "The time it takes to get to this point ... the amount of work and the sacrifices. This is what we wanted, a chance for a gold medal."
With the Americans, their question is far from talent. They are the top-ranked team in the world. They've won eight of the last 10 IIHF World Championships. The issue is whether or not they can perform on the biggest stage in women's hockey -- the Olympic gold-medal match.
Coach Robb Stauber is confident. He said after Monday's win that he watches his players closely and believes they are exactly where they need to be -- mentally and physically -- to succeed. They have bought into his "pucks on net" philosophy, outshooitng their opponents 175-74 through four games.
"A lot of teams might have overlooked their opponent in that situation today," Stauber said. "But we weren't going to. Mentally and physically, that speaks to how focused this team is and how willing they are to stick to the plan."
The U.S. will next play Canada, which beat the Olympic Athletes from Russia 5-0 in Monday's other semifinal. The Canadians are riding a 25-match Olympic-winning streak, having not lost since the gold-medal game against the U.S. in 1998. Four years ago in Sochi, the U.S. led Canada 2-0 with under four minutes left in regulation, but the Canadians rallied to tie the score in regulation and win 3-2 in overtime.
Forward Hilary Knight, who also scored on Monday, said after the semifinal win over Finland that the gold-medal loss in Sochi still stings. She compared it to a bad relationship. "That's what it is, right?" she said. "It's always going to be there. It's part of your fabric."
This time, they hope, will be different. Lamoureux-Davidson said this year's team is far more laid back, taking time with their families and watching other Olympic events between games.
"We're enjoying this experience a lot more than Sochi," she said. "I think we had the attitude to act like you've been there before. Now we take it in like it's your first time. There's a whole new level of energy in that locker room. There's a confidence."
It's easy to say now. Thursday will be the ultimate test. In their preliminary-round match with Canada last week, the Americans dominated play but lost 2-1, their fifth straight defeat against the Canadians. Thursday is a chance to erase all the pain.
"I wish you could be in our room," Knight said. "It's something special."