By Sam Metry | Dec. 17, 2016, 10:59 p.m. (ET)
The U.S. women's national ice hockey team readies for competition against Canada as part of the Team USA Winter Champions Series on Dec. 17, 2016 in Plymouth, Mich.


PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- There’s no love lost when Team USA and Canada meet in women’s ice hockey, and exhibition games are no exception, as the two rivals showed on Saturday.

In front of a national TV audience as part of the inaugural Team USA Winter Champions Series, Canada overcame double-digit penalties, an injured goalie and a two-goal deficit to beat the Americans 5-3 at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan.

The game was intense, as it usually is between the two teams, with Canada racking up 10 penalties and Team USA adding four more.

“It’s never going to be a love affair (when we play Canada),” said U.S. coach Robb Stauber. “There were some penalties that I didn’t even see, which tells me they happened behind the pipes.”

Canada’s Rebecca Johnston opened the scoring in the first period, but Team USA took advantage of an injury to Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens less than 10 minutes into the game. Within six minutes of the second period, Team USA’s Hilary Knight had scored one goal and Brianna Decker added two more against replacement goalie Shannon Szabados, giving the Americans a 3-1 lead.

However, Szabados — who backstopped the team to gold medals at the last two Olympic Winter Games — closed the door after that, and Canada scored four unanswered goals to clinch the win. Johnson added a second goal, while Jillian Saulnier netted two herself and Natalie Spooner had the game-winner. U.S. goalie Alex Rigsby finished with 18 saves.

“Even though it was just an exhibition, anytime you play Canada it’s a battle and you always want to come out with a win,” said U.S. defensemen Megan Keller.

The Americans won’t have to wait long for a rematch. The teams renew their rivalry on Monday night in Sarnia, Ontario.

Saturday’s game was special though. The game was part of the first Team USA Winter Champions Series, which also included an FIL Luge World Cup in Park City, Utah, and the U.S. Grand Prix big air snowboarding event in Copper Mountain, Colorado. All three events were broadcast live, with big air and luge on NBC and hockey on NBCSN.

The hockey game was also a preview of the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship, which will be back at USA Hockey Arena from March 31-April 7, 2017.

“It’s an awesome (experience to prepare for the world championships),” U.S. defensemen Monique Lamoureux-Morando said. “It’s a great setup here, we’ve had a lot of fun this week here in Plymouth. As far as the training aspect, it’s great for us as athletes. I know we’re excited (to come back here) for worlds in April.”

The U.S. players said they felt the excitement of being part of the Winter Champions Series but tried not to let it distract them.

“(The TV coverage) was exciting. I think we make a point to make sure we don’t get distracted by any of it,” said Lamoureux-Morando, who helped Team USA win silver medals at the 2010 and 2014 Olympic Winter Games. “I think we just try and approach it like it was any other game. Sometimes we play Canada in front of 10,000, sometimes it’s just a couple hundred, so I think we just try and keep the same mindset anytime we play them.” 

Stauber said that he could feel the excitement in the arena.

“It’s great for our players to have that sort of energy in the building,” he said. “I’m sure most of the fans went home unhappy, but some went home happy. That’s sports.”

The Winter Champions Series also served as a homecoming for Team USA’s Keller, who is from Farmington, Michigan, which is just 15 miles from USA Hockey Arena.

“It was an awesome atmosphere out there,” Keller said. “Being able to come back to my hometown and to play for Team USA with a bunch of great players and (have it be in) one of the biggest rivalries in women’s hockey was something special to experience. “

USA Hockey Arena was sold out with over 3,300 in attendance, and a lot of them were young girls sporting their youth hockey team’s jersey.

“It was pretty cool,” Keller said. “I saw a lot of HoneyBaked and Livonia jerseys out there. Those are two programs I played for growing up, so being able to see all those young girls out there was a really cool experience.”

The day gave Keller a chance to reflect on her career a bit as well.

“I feel like not too long ago, I was (one of) them,” she said. “I was watching games on TV. It’s pretty surreal to see them in the stands.”

Earlier in the day, Americans Erin Hamlin finished first and Emily Sweeney was second in the luge world cup. Meanwhile, Jamie Anderson picked up the win for Team USA in the women’s snowboarding big air competition, and Ryan Stassel finished third in the men’s competition to round out the Winter Champions Series.

Sam Metry is a Michigan-based sportswriter. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.