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SOCHI, Russia – Kelli Stack knew it before anyone else. Almost from the instant she fired the puck from her own end of the ice toward the open Canadian net, she knew what would happen.

“I knew it was going to hit the post right away,” Stack said early Friday morning at the Bolshoy Ice Dome. “But we were still up a goal, so I didn’t think anything of it. I thought, ‘Oh, it would have been nice if that went in, an inch to the right.’ ”

The U.S. women were still ahead, after all. It was 2-1, with 1:14 to play in regulation, when Stack’s long shot trickled off the goal post and stopped in the crease. All they had to do was kill off the remaining time, and they would be the Olympic gold medalists.

But the Canadian women had other thoughts. “It freaked me out,” said defenseman Jocelyne Larocque. “I saw it hit the post and thought, ‘It happened for a reason. We’re going to get that tying goal.’ ”

Canadian coach Kevin Dineen called timeout after Stack’s shot hit the post, so he could settle his team down. They were still alive, still only one goal down, still the three-time defending Olympic champions.

And sure enough, they found a way. With 55 seconds left in regulation, Marie-Philip Poulin took a fortunate bounce off the back boards and beat Jessie Vetter with a quick wrist shot to the left corner of the net.

So the irrepressible Canadians, who were down, 2-0, and seemingly finished with 3:30 to play, were suddenly tied with the Americans. That’s when it occurred to Stack that she had lived this nightmare before.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’ve done that once before in my career, and it’s the worst feeling in the world,’ ” Stack said. “I was at BC and we were leading St. Lawrence. I had a chance at an empty net, and it hit the post, and they came back to tie it. Left post, again.”

Give the U.S. women credit. They didn’t melt after coughing up a two-goal lead in the 3:26 of regulation. They came out strong in the four-on-four overtime and had a number of good chances to win.

But you don’t give a team like Canada’s an extra life. At 9:05 of overtime, Poulin scored again on a power play to give the Canadians a stunning, 3-2 victory and their fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal.

It was the 20th straight Olympic win for the Canadians, who haven’t lost since the Americans beat them for gold in 1998, the year women’s hockey was added to the Games. For the U.S., this makes three silver medals and a bronze in their last four appearances.

This was the most excruciating of all, because the U.S. women truly felt they were a different team this time, more talented, faster, more unified and committed to bringing back the gold medal.

“I think we were more prepared, more focused,” said Stack, one of 11 women who also played on the 2010 team. “We thought a lot about the ’98 team and not having won gold since then, and we wanted to be the team to bring the gold medal back.”

Many of the American women talked about that 1998 team, how they’d watched it as young girls and grown up wanting to be just like those players. Meghan Duggan, who scored the first goal, talked about ’98 all the time. So did Julie Chu, the elder stateswoman and unofficial den mother of the U.S. team, who was playing in her fourth Olympics.

It was Chu who gathered the team together on the ice after the loss, telling them to keep their heads up and not allow the world to think they didn’t appreciate the chance to represent their country and win silver.

“I told them, ‘Win or lose, we’ve always done this together,’ ” Chu said. “I said the big thing is, keep your heads up high. There’s nothing to be ashamed of today. Be proud of the way we played today. Be proud of the team we are.”

But as Chu conceded, it was difficult. As competitors, the U.S. women wanted desperately to beat Canada. They had beaten them four times in a row in the pre-Olympic series. Twice, the teams had brawled at the end of games. It was personal between the players, many of whom had played on the same U.S. college teams.

So it was hard to swallow, hard not to lament the series of unfortunate events that conspired against them in the end. The first Canada goal bounced into the net off U.S. defender Kacey Bellamy. Stack’s shot came within inches of going into the empty net.

“Unlucky? We got some unlucky calls, that’s for sure,” said Jocelyne Lamoureux, who was called for a dubious slash against Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados in overtime. “But nothing you can do about it.”

On the medal stand, as the silver medals were hung around their necks, several of the American players were in tears. Some of them looked as if they’d like to hand the silver medals back, the way they’d given away the two-goal lead.

“I had no doubt we were going to win,” said Stack, who had an assist on the goal that made it 2-0 early in the third. “We were up by two goals, so it’s honestly shocking and heart-breaking that we didn’t win the game. It feels like a dream.”

It was small consolation, but in time the U.S. women can look back and be proud to have been part of a great hockey game, one that thrilled fans around the globe and brought honor to a sport that had been put on notice by the IOC for a lack of competition.

The rest of the world has a lot of catching up to do, but a game like U.S.-Canada shows the possibilities in the women’s game. Maybe it can inspire a new legion of little girls, the way the ’98 tournament did.

“It’s not the U.S. and Canada’s fault they’re good,” said Sweden coach Leif Boork. “I want them to remain good so we have something to look up to.”

The Swiss took bronze against the Swedes earlier Thursday. You would have thought they won gold. The players were exultant, sliding across the ice on their stomachs. It was a fine day for women’s hockey. It’s good for the U.S. women to know how much a simple bronze can mean.

“I’m happy for the Swiss,” Stack said. “They deserved it. The hardest part is going in the locker room. Everyone’s going to be sad. So if you guys want to keep me here, it’s OK.”

Imagine that, an athlete wanting to linger with the press, answering tough questions about a squandered gold medal, to delay the anguish of being in the locker room with her teammates. The locker room is the place where athletes get to be alone, where they create the competitive bond that carries them to great victories and helps them deal with their most crushing disappointments.

The U.S. women’s hockey players don’t lose very often. But they don’t return to popular pro leagues and million-dollar contracts, either.

The Olympics is their Super Bowl. It means the world.

That’s why the Canadians let Hayley Wickenheiser, a five-time hockey Olympian, carry the flag in the Opening Ceremonies. People said the Russian men’s hockey team had all the pressure to win for their country.

I don’t believe the Olympics meant nearly as much to them as it did to Chu, who gave 12 years of her life to U.S. women’s hockey and came within 55 seconds of her first gold medal.

“She’s unbelievable,” Stack said. “I wanted nothing more than to win it for her. She’s been around for so long. It stinks that out of all her Olympic experiences, we couldn’t get her a gold medal. In hockey you lose to get a silver medal, so it’s not fun.”

Stack thanked the media and walked off to be with her teammates. She was already crying.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com