-- SOCHI, Russia -- The puck skittered the length of the ice on its way toward the empty Canadian net before clanging off the post and stopping in front of the crease.
It was -- for a few more seconds, at least -- still a one-goal game.
Then Marie-Philip Poulin scored with 54.6 seconds left in regulation, completing Canada's comeback from a two-goal deficit and sending the game into overtime. Once there, she added the gold medal-winning goal to beat the United States 3-2 -- the fourth consecutive Olympic women's hockey title for the sport's birthplace.
"I think it always gets better, for sure,'' Poulin, who also scored twice in the Vancouver final four years ago, said Thursday night with her second gold medal draped around her neck. "It's so hard to get here and to bring it back (home) is amazing.''
Shannon Szabados made 27 saves for Canada, which has won 20 straight Olympic games since the Nagano final in 1998. That was the only gold medal for the United States, which lost in the Olympic final to Canada in all three tries since then and earned a bronze in 2006.
Meghan Duggan and Alex Carpenter scored for the Americans. Jesse Vetter made 28 saves, shutting the powerful Canadians down for 56 minutes, 34 seconds before Brianne Jenner knocked a seemingly harmless shot off a defender's knee and into the net.
With Szabados pulled for an extra skater, U.S. forward Kelli Stack sent a clearing shot down the ice, missing a potential game-clinching empty-net goal by inches. Even after insisting her confidence never wavered, Canada defenseman Jocelyne Larocque's eyes grew wide when asked about the near clincher.
"I was freaked out at that point,'' she said. "It hit the post and I went, 'You know, it happened for a reason. We're going to get that goal.'''
Stack said she could see the puck had the wrong angle, but she didn't worry because the U.S. still had a 2-1 lead with just more than a minute to play. About 30 seconds later, with the goalie still off, Poulin tied it and sent the game into overtime.
"It would have given us a bigger cushion,'' said Stack, who played at Boston College. "I've done that once before in college, and it's the worst feeling in the world.''
After six tense minutes of the extra period, the U.S. picked up a power play when Catherine Ward was sent off for cross-checking. But five seconds later, Jocelyne Lamoureux was called for slashing for swiping at the Szabados' pads after a save.
And during a sloppy player change by the Americans, five-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser got free on a breakaway before Hilary Knight caught her from behind and she went sprawling. It could have been called a penalty shot. It could have been no call. (Knight denied making any contact at all. And, when asked about the officiating, U.S. coach Katey Stone issued only a terse, "No comment.'') But Knight was sent to the penalty box for cross-checking.
With the 4-on-3 advantage, the Canadians worked the puck around and over to Poulin, who knocked it into the open net and set off the celebration on the bench and among the Maple Leaf-waving fans.
"Unfortunately, when you let other factors come in, it can bounce either way. That's what happened today,'' Knight said. "It's heartbreaking, and you go four years, and you think you've got the game in the bag, and something happens. It's unfortunate, but this group has represented our country at an outstanding level. So can't really be too heartbroken about it.''
Switzerland beat Sweden earlier Thursday for the bronze medal at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, where the women moved after playing the preliminaries at the smaller Shayba Arena next door. Switzerland goalie Florence Schelling, who led the tournament with 253 saves in six games, was named Most Valuable Player.
The 10,639 fans at the final included the Canadian men's team that completed a sweep of the hockey gold medals in Vancouver four years ago. The Canadian women also beat their southern neighbors three times in a pre-Olympic tour this fall before coach Dan Church quit unexpectedly in December and the Americans won four straight times heading into the Olympics.
Then, in a rare round-robin matchup between the sports' two top powers, the Canadians won 3-2. They extended their Olympic winning streak over the U.S. to four consecutive games.
"For us, it's just a great feeling,'' said coach Kevin Dineen, who replaced Church. "And for me, it's even more special because it's the first one.''
The high spirits entering Thursday's showdown even extended to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Barack Obama.
The leaders wagered a case of beer on the game, as well as one on Friday's semifinal showdown between the U.S. men and Canada.
So far, Harper is up, 1-0.
Fans wearing Maple Leaf sweaters and Stars and Stripe scarves tried to outshout each other Thursday -- with a healthy number of locals chanting "Ro-ssi-ya!'' for their long-departed hockey teams.
The pro-Canada crowd grew louder after the first goal, but the second one quieted them until the flurry at the end of regulation. The hard-hitting first period featured five penalties and no goals.
It was still scoreless when Duggan took a drop pass from Lamoureux at the left circle and wristed the puck into the top corner of the net past a screened Szabados.
The U.S. scored on a power play early in the third when Tara Watchorn was sent off for the third time in the game and, with just seconds left in the tripping penalty, Hilary Knight threaded a pass through Canadian defenseman Laura Fortino's legs to Carpenter at the far side of the crease. She deflected it past Szabados and off the post to make it 2-0.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.