It’s been 20 years since the U.S. women’s hockey team beat Canada at the Winter Olympics — a dry spell they broke on Thursday afternoon after beating the Canadians 3-2 in a dramatic penalty shootout.
The gold medal game, in Gangneung, South Korea, (which aired early Thursday morning stateside) was the latest installment in the recurring rivalry for first place at the Games between America and its northern neighbor.
Since women’s ice hockey was introduced at the Olympics in 1998, the two teams have played each other for the gold in five of those six Games, coming up short in all but the first, including back-to-back loses in 2010 and 2014.
The 2018 win came down to the wire after a late-game goal by the U.S. sent them into overtime and then — after a scoreless quarter — into a shootout.
At the Games four years ago, in Sochi, Russia, the U.S. women lost 3-2 to Canada in overtime. That disappointment, the players said later, was turned into fuel.
“The devastation that we felt in Sochi after that final, it only built us up these past four years,” team captain Meghan Duggan told PEOPLE in the fall, prior to heading to Korea.
“It’s no secret that we came up short of our ultimate goal,” Duggan said then. “While it was both incredible experience and really proud to be there, I think we said to a lot of people, ‘We don’t train that hard for second place.’ And that’s just our mentality — it’s gold or bust going into this one for us. We’re excited, we’re prepared. This is the group and it’s going to be an incredible journey.”
Speaking to the press earlier this week as the hockey tournament continued, U.S. goalie Maddie Rooney said the dream was “to follow up the 1998 Olympic team.”
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“They’ve been our leaders and our great role models for us,” Rooney said, “and it’d mean everything for us.”
After they beat Finland 5-0 to advance to the gold medal round, forward Hilary Knight said the team was “clicking.”
“We’re humming,” she said earlier this week. “It wasn’t just one line that was going tonight, all four. That’s huge. It’s really rare in a sport like that.”
A win at the Olympics this year caps one of the team’s most prominent years to-date. Last March, they made headlines when they threatened to pull out of the IIHF World Championship unless they received fair wages and support from USA Hockey.
Knight told PEOPLE in the fall that the stance was necessary, calling it a “cause that’s bigger than ourselves.”
In the end, the team and the organization negotiated a four-year deal that increased their financial support. The “huge equitable support battle … spoke volumes of the character that we had in the room,” Knight said.
Duggan echoed that: “I think as powerful female athletes it was important to us at that point to really make the stand that we did.”
Flash-forward nearly 12 months and, as her team looked toward their Olympic rematch with Canada, Knight said she was still taking it all in.
“I keep sort of pinching myself,” she said. “I mean, this is my third time going to a gold-medal game, a lot of our third times. I mean, that’s a dream come true. It’s a huge opportunity to represent our country the way that we have, I really hope we get a tangible success at the end of this journey.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.
• With CHAR ADAMS