– They took turns skating with the American flag held above their head or draped around their shoulders. Springsteen blared over the sound system as chants of “USA! USA!” filled the arena.

They waited 20 years for this celebration. Twenty years of silver medals, of heartbreaking losses, of having to stand there in tears and watch their archrival celebrate just like this.

Now it was their turn to feel what it’s like at the summit of their sport.

They didn’t hold back. They hugged and shed happy tears and screamed until their throats burned.

“Pure screams and pure happiness,” one player would say later.

The U.S. women’s hockey team let loose 20 years of emotion that spewed like a volcanic eruption.

The Americans are bringing home the gold medal from the Olympics this time. Not Canada.

“You’re in shock,” defenseman Sidney Morin said.

And awe, too, because a rivalry that already ranked among the best in sports managed to deliver another epic clash that won’t be topped by anything in these Olympics in entertainment and drama.

Three periods and one overtime couldn’t settle the matter. A shootout was required, and Team USA converted one more than Canada for a 3-2 victory early Thursday morning Twin Cities time that gave the Americans their first gold medal since 1998, the year women’s hockey debuted in the Olympics.

Canada had won four consecutive gold medals and had not lost an Olympic game — 24 in a row — since a loss in that 1998 gold medal game.

The Americans weren’t just trying to dethrone a champion. They also needed to conquer their own gold medal demons and finally rid themselves of the nightmare of their late-game meltdown in Sochi four years ago.

They had to prove to themselves, to everyone, that they could beat the team that never loses in the Olympics.

“We knew that we could beat them,” forward Dani Cameranesi said.

If they had to wait 20 years, might as well make it a classic. This one was worthy of gold, reminding us that nothing in sports surpasses in emotion and tension those times when two heavyweights perform at their absolute best with a championship on the line.

Canada didn’t lose. Team USA just won.

By a whisker.

“This is a classic example of how hard it should be,” U.S. coach Robb Stauber said.

They delivered a masterpiece, 80 minutes of anxiety -filled hockey that was emotionally exhausting to witness. These rivals always bring out the best in each other, but their competitive fight on display was extraordinary even by their standards. Every shift or rush up the ice in overtime made your heart rate spike.

And then a skills competition decided it. Seriously, Olympics? Eighty minutes of magnificent action followed by a shootout to decide the gold medal?

Hate that rule.

The feeling would be the same had Canada won. It just seems an odd way to determine a champion.

Shootouts create tense moments by design. This one was no different. It’s just that the game was so can’t-look-away compelling that you wished they could have settled it under normal hockey terms.

Alas, the outcome is all that matters. The Americans won because Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson executed one of the prettiest shootout moves you’ll ever see. Two fakes sent Canada’s goalie Shannon Szabados tumbling backward, creating an open net. “She’s got filthy hands,” Megan Keller said in paying her teammate a fine hockey compliment.

The Americans needed one more stop after that, putting their faith in Maddie Rooney, who was 7 months old when Team USA won its only gold medal. Rooney stuffed Meghan Agosta and the party was on.

“I never felt for one minute that it wasn’t going to work out,” Stauber said.

His players believed that, too. Not just hoped it would happen but truly believed that they could be better than Canada on this stage. Then they went out and proved it.

“This is as good as it gets for us,” Morin said.

They know too well how the other side feels. Many of them experienced the heartbreak in Sochi and the four long years that followed it.

That memory probably won’t ever leave them, but it looked a million miles behind them as they kept touching and admiring the gold medals that dangled from their necks.

“It’s indescribable how happy it is to be an Olympic champion,” Monique Lamoureux-Morando said. “It’s a title no one can take away from us.”