By Steve Keating
SOCHI, Russia, Feb 20 (Reuters) - American Julie Chu has four times stood on the ice, listened to Canada's national anthem and watched the Maple Leaf raised to the roof while the United States' great rivals celebrated an Olympic women's ice hockey gold medal.
Three times Chu has had to settle for Olympic silver and once for bronze, the gold medal always just beyond her grasp.
But never before had Chu and her team mates come so close to reaching the top of the podium as they did on Thursday, when Canada stormed back from 2-0 down with under four minutes to play to claim a 3-2 overtime win and turn the American Olympic dream into a Sochi Winter Games nightmare.
"It's tough because I think we played a pretty good game," said a surprisingly composed Chu, a silver medal hanging unloved from her neck. "I think I will need a little bit of time just because of how raw the game was, how up and down emotionally it was."
A hit post, a deflected Canada goal and a poorly timed penalty, it seemed as if the hockey Gods were upset with the Americans in the cruel manner of the defeat.
Marie-Philip Poulin's gold medal-clinching goal came on a powerplay in overtime, while Brianne Jenner had earlier sparked the Canadian comeback with a shot that ricocheted off the knee of American defender Kacey Bellamy.
But the cruellest twist of all came late in the third period.
With the score at 2-1, the United States bench on their feet ready to celebrate and the Canadian net empty in favour of an extra attacker, Kelli Stack cleared the puck from her end and watched it glide the length of the ice before softly glancing off Canada's goal post.
Moments later the puck was in the back of the American net, Poulin notching her first of the game with 55 seconds to play.
"I could tell it was going to hit the post from where I was but honestly it just wasn't meant to be," said Stack, fighting to hold back her tears. "If it had been an inch to the right it would have went in and we would have won the gold medal.
"When pucks don't bounce your way you just got to know it wasn't meant to be and we live to fight another day.
"To think that an empty net goal would have been a game-winning goal is like crazy to think about.
"This is the worst feeling in the world, I don't know if I'll ever enjoy it the way I want to," added Stack, her voice softly trailing off in a whisper.
For 56 minutes the Americans played as if the Sochi gold medal was their destiny.
But in the final four minutes the lucky bounces turned bad and the Americans' fate was sealed.
"When you lose the last game of the season when you have come all this way you're going to be disappointed, especially when it feels like it has been ripped from you," said Hilary Knight. "We had some unfortunate bounces that didn't go our way but that's hockey." (Editing by Ken Ferris)