SOCHI, Russia -- A game they waited four years to play.
A team painstakingly built with a gold medal in mind.
A dream of not just avenging a heartbreaking loss in the previous Olympic tournament but fulfilling the grand potential they had shown in recent days.
And, at the end of the night, all the American hockey players could do was to stare up at the score clock at the Bolshoy Ice Dome and wonder how they could have come up one goal short.
Canada 1, United States 0.
This time, there would be no dramatic late-game reprieve as there was four years ago in Vancouver when Zach Parise tied the gold-medal game 2-2 in the final minute, the goaltender on the bench, ultimately setting the stage for Sidney Crosby's golden goal in overtime.
On this night, there were no late-game heroics.
Indeed, the U.S. never really created anything approaching a tying goal in the final moments as Canada's superlative team defense kept the American attackers neutralized and at bay.
For a collection of players that had created an identity in Sochi as a deep, dangerous team that could hurt you from anywhere in the lineup, the Americans came up far short of that kind of performance, often too cute with the puck, often a step out of sync against a blazing-fast Canadian team.
Meanwhile, a Canadian team that had struggled to find its offensive rhythm all tournament -- having scored just 13 goals, seven of which were by defensemen Drew Doughty and Shea Weber -- delivered the more dangerous of the chances and, in the end, it was Jamie Benn who scored all the goals Canada would need to advance to a gold-medal game Sunday against Sweden.
"At the moment, there's a great conglomeration of both," said U.S. center and St. Louis Blues captain David Backes. "We had an awesome opportunity. I don't think we laid it all on the line the way we want to, the way that we needed to. Obviously, 1-0 game in the semifinal against your rival country, it's a sour taste, for sure."
The U.S. will have to satisfy itself with a chance at a bronze medal. To be sure, it will be a difficult challenge to walk away from this one-goal loss to its biggest international rival and refocus on beating a diligent, disciplined Finnish team Saturday night.
"It's not easy. But you're certainly going to see our best tomorrow night," said Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler, who has had a strong tournament for the U.S. "We're not a team that's going to be knocked down and not respond the next day.
"So, going up against a good Finland team, we still have something to play for. It's not, obviously, what we wanted, but there's a still a medal we can go home with. We're going to play it just as if it's the gold-medal game."
Make no mistake, this was a terrific hockey game. You knew it would be. Just as it seemed preordained that, at some point in this tournament, the two teams would meet, it was likewise preordained that the clash would be something special. The pace was incredible at times, with players on both sides finding seams on the big ice, trying to stretch the zones and create scoring chances.