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Jessica Steffens of the United States, in blue cap, and Krystina Alogbo of Canada battle for the ball in gold-medal water polo action Friday. The U.S. squeaked out a 7-6 victory to defend their world crown. ((Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images))

The United States edged Canada 7-6 to capture gold in women's water polo at the world aquatics championships in Rome on Friday. 

Kelly Rulon scored the winning goal on a penalty shot for the defending world champions with just under four minutes remaining in the match.

However, the Canadian women have filed a protest over their loss, stemming from an incident in the second quarter. With the U.S. leading 5-4, American Elsie Windes hit Canadian captain Krystina Alogbo in the face.

Windes was ejected. But the Canadians were frustrated that she was given a penalty for violence and not the more serious call of brutality, which would have given Canada a four-minute, man-advantage and a penalty shot.

When the game was restarted, the teams played six-on-six. Canadian coach Pat Oaten said following an ejection for violence the U.S. should have been forced to play one-player short for 20 seconds.

A decision on the protest is expected Saturday.

If Canada wins the protest, the game could be replayed from the time of the incident in the second quarter.

"I am very disappointed. We don't deserve this result," Oaten said. "We have to learn from this experience."

It’s the second time Canada has played in the world championship final and second time it has taken home the silver medal, having lost to the Netherlands in the 1991 title game.

Calgary’s Emily Csikos scored four goals for the Canadians in a losing cause while team captain Krystina Alogbo of Rivière-des-Prairies, Que., and Dominique Perreault of Montreal added singles. 

Goalkeeper Rachel Riddell, who was stellar for Canada throughout the tournament, made 12 saves and was named the competition's top goalie.

It was a gut-wrenching loss for the young Canadian team, which traded leads with the Americans throughout the intense and often rough match.

There was no shortage of action in the game, but the key moment occurred in the late stages of the fourth quarter.

Pivotal moment in dying minutes

Just seconds after Csikos had tied it 6-6 on a penalty shot, Rulon was awarded one at the other end that came at a serious cost to the Canadians.

First, Christine Robinson of Lachine, Que., was handed a penalty foul and excluded with substitution for her jostle with Rulon.

Riddell stopped the ensuing penalty shot, and it appeared as though the Canadians had taken a stranglehold on the game's momentum.

But the jubilation only lasted a second. 

The officials ruled that Alogbo had interfered with Rulon's shot and ordered a retake. To make matters worse, Alogbo, who had been a pivotal player in the game with her physical presence in front of the U.S. goal, was given a penalty foul and sent off.

Oaten also questioned that call.

"I'm hurting for the players," said Oaten. "I don't understand how clear rules can not be followed.

"They expect coaches and players to abide by the rules. How one high-ranking official can't know the rules is frustrating."

U.S. goalie saves victory

Rulon was successful on her second attempt, beating Riddell with a low shot just inside the left post.

Canada soldiered on without two of its leaders and nearly scored the equalizer with 17 seconds remaining, but U.S. goalie Elizabeth Armstrong denied Tara Campbell's blast to preserve the win.

In the bronze-medal game earlier in the day, Evengina Ivanova scored just two seconds before the end of regulation time to give Russia a thrilling 10-9 victory over Greece.

The men's medal games take place Saturday, with Spain facing Serbia for gold and the U.S. meeting Croatia in the third-place match.

With files from The Canadian Press