No matter the year, the month or the day, the members of the U.S. women’s national ice hockey team are always thinking about winning an Olympic gold medal.
With the 2018 Winter Games now just 15 months away, however, each opportunity to compete together is another chance to build that preparedness for PyeongChang and test where they’re at toward reaching that goal.
To finish as the ultimate team in the next Winter Games will require not only skill and speed but also chemistry, confidence and determination — all things the U.S. women displayed in winning the Four Nations Cup earlier this month in Finland. The title was their second in a row, seventh overall and fourth in the last six years.
“I think it was a great opportunity for us to see where we’re at,” said Brianna Decker, who was the leading scorer for Team USA in the tournament with two goals and five assists in four games. “We’ve been working on a lot of different things, and our chemistry has been awesome on and off the ice. We have a great mix of veterans and experienced players and a couple new faces here and there, but we just get along really well and that’s the biggest thing for us.”
The U.S. women opened the tournament with a 6-0 win over Sweden and followed that up with another shutout, this time 4-0 against Finland. They faced Canada in the final game of round-robin play and lost 3-2, despite outshooting their rivals 32-17. They didn’t have to wait long for redemption, however.
The U.S. team turned around and faced Canada again the very next day in the championship game. Canada struck first, taking a 1-0 lead at 3:40 of the first period. After having to kill three penalties over the next 10 minutes, Team USA’s Emily Pfalzer tied it at 16:51 on a rebound.
“I think that’s something we’ve really been focusing on since I started coaching is just knowing that we’re never going to panic and we’re not going to lose focus on our objectives in the game,” U.S. coach Ken Klee said. “We’re just going to continue to play. There are ebbs and flows and momentum shifts in every game, but if we just keep focused on doing the right things we know we can generate chances. Then it’s just a matter of finishing.”
Less than a minute and a half after Pfalzer’s goal, Team USA took its first lead of the game and entered the break leading 2-1. Canada tied it once again early in the third period, but the U.S. team answered with the go-ahead goal from Decker, who beat goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer with a slapshot.
Midway through the period the United States had extended its lead to 5-2 before Canada scored a late goal, and the game ended with Team USA ahead 5-3.
“I think one thing it shows is that with our veteran group especially we never have any doubt in our minds that we’re going to win the game, and it’s awesome to have that mindset throughout,” Decker said. “It gives us confidence and the whole team feels that.”
A total of nine players on the U.S. team had at least one point in the win. That depth and the knowledge that everyone is going to pull her own weight adds to the confidence they have in big game situations, Decker said.
Relying on the whole team to contribute both offensively and defensively is a key part of the team’s success, Klee added.
“It’s huge when we know we don’t need to rely on one or two players to score,” he said. “I think it’s a big advantage for us physically and mentally that we can continue to push the pace and push the attack on other teams and make them feel like they never have a break.”
The players are back with either their professional or college teams for now, but in December they’ll get together again for their winter training camp followed by a pair of games against Canada. The Dec. 17 game will be broadcast on NBCSN as part of the Team USA Winter Champions Series. Out of that, USA Hockey will select the roster that will represent Team USA at the IIHF Women’s World Championship. The U.S. is hosting the 2017 tournament at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan, beginning on April 1.
Then the anticipation of the 2018 Winter Games will shift into high gear, although Klee said it never really stops.
“All the players know what’s at stake every time they put on the USA jersey,” he said. “I think without question all their goals are to be Olympians and hopefully give themselves the best chance to win gold. In between that, it’s a process. Every time they’re on the ice, every camp, every game, I definitely think they’re putting their best foot forward because they know that it’s the nature of sports that you’re always being judged.
“They’re always being looked at to see, is this player going to be someone who gets invited to the trials in June and have the chance to make the Olympic team?”