SOCHI, Russia – Controversial is the most common word used to describe Canada’s second hockey goal against the United States on Wednesday.

But there is no controversy in the eyes of U.S. forward Hilary Knight’s view.

“The whistle was clear before the puck went in the back of the net,” Knight said. “…The whistle blew, and they called it a goal.”

That goal - yes, the controversial one - was critical in Canada’s 3-2 win Wednesday over the United States in what amounted to a fascinating exhibition. The teams already had qualified for the medal round and almost certainly will meet again for the gold.

Early in the third period, Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser fired a shot at goalie Jessie Vetter, who covered the puck. But as Vetter leaned more fully into the cover, the puck trickled loose.

At this point, the controversy began. American coach Katey Stone is sure she heard a distinctive noise.

“I did hear the whistle before the puck went in,” Stone said.

Officials did not agree with Stone and Knight. The goal was allowed.  Canada led, 2-1.

“I thought it was under me,” Vetter said. “Then I heard a whistle and turned around and they were celebrating.”

The next key moment is not in dispute. With 5:05 left and the United States still within sight, Canada’s Meghan Agosta broke free and fooled Vetter with a wrist shot. The Canadians led 3-1 and were on their way to a breezy victory.

This was Canada’s 18th straight victory and a clear announcement of the team’s current supremacy in world hockey. The Americans are just as clearly the No. 2 team with no other country even close.

The game was physical and close in the first two periods, but in the third period the Canadians seized control. Canada outshot the Americans 12-3 in the third.

This is the premier rivalry of women’s hockey, and the game featured pushing and bitter talking. The game should serve as a preview for a spirited final.

“It’s always intense when we play,” said American forward Jocelyne Lamoureux.

Her words are true. The game, though largely meaningless, featured the atmosphere of a medal game with more than 4,000 shouting fans. After Agosta’s game-clinching goal, a fan near the top of the arena held a sign high above his head.

“Hockey is Canada’s game!” the sign read.

On this evening, no one could argue with him or the hundreds of other happy Canadian fans.

The big question of the night is who will be happy Feb. 20, the day of the gold medal final. Canada skated away with a convincing victory, but the Americans might have grabbed a more precious gift.

“Coming away with a loss might be a little more motivating,” Vetter said. “We hope to be in this situation again.”

Twitter: @davidramz