Reinvigorated Hilary Knight Is As Dangerous As Ever For U.S. Women’s Hockey

By Chrös McDougall | Nov. 08, 2017, 4:09 p.m. (ET)
Hilary Knight poses for a portrait during the Team USA Media Summit on Sept. 26, 2017 in Park City, Utah.

 

Eight seconds.

That’s how long Hilary Knight needed to create and finish the most important play in women’s hockey in 2017.

Tied 2-2 against Canada in overtime of the gold-medal game at the world championships, Knight blocked a shot at the blue line, passed to teammate Kendall Coyne on the breakout and joined a 3-on-2 rush into Canada’s zone.

When Coyne dropped the puck back to Knight in the near faceoff circle, it was over.

Knight’s laser to the top corner of the net secured Team USA’s fourth consecutive world title and showed, once again, why the 5-foot-11, 172-pound Knight is one of the most dangerous offensive players on the planet.

“Certainly her size, but her skill set and agility that goes with that, it’s a hard player to stop,” said USA Hockey Director of Women’s Hockey Reagan Carey.

This week, Knight along with linemates Coyne and Brianna Decker, are leading Team USA at the Four Nations Cup in Florida, and they’ll no doubt play a vital role should the Americans succeed in winning the next Olympic gold medal in February in PyeongChang, South Korea.

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For the two-time Olympian Knight, 28, it’s a position she wasn’t sure she would be in.

She, like many of her veteran teammates, was left with a sour taste from their experience in Sochi.

It wasn’t just that Team USA dropped the gold-medal game in heartbreaking fashion — going from up 2-0 with 3:30 remaining to losing 3-2 in overtime. The letdown was compounded by a playing style that Knight and others simply didn’t find as fun.

“It was just really rigid,” Knight said in September at the Team USA Media Summit in Utah. “It was set plays and specific jobs and rules and stuff, which you’re always going to have on a team, but it was just, it was a lot.”

To be sure, the style was effective. Team USA went into Sochi as the defending world champions, and even Knight scored three goals on six points in her five Olympic games.

But as for that pivotal goal at last year’s world championships?

“I don’t know if that play would have unfolded the same way (four years ago),” she said. “I might have reacted differently because I had a different role.”

So if that’s what the next four years were going to be like, Knight, though still in the prime of her career, wasn’t sure she was up for it.

“I was done,” she said.

OK, she wasn’t done done.

“But I think emotionally I wasn’t two feet in,” she said. “So I was continuing to be in the weight room and stuff, because I just didn’t know what else to do.”

She’s fully committed now.

Knight rejoined the U.S. team at its fall camp in 2014, and she’s been on a tear ever since.

Already a two-time U.S. Olympic silver medalist, Knight was named MVP of the 2015 and 2016 world championships, both of which Team USA won, before notching four goals and five assists over five games in the 2017 world championships. The most recent win, this past March in Plymouth, Michigan, marked the first of the program’s eight world titles to be won on home ice, and the seventh overall for Knight.

That dominance continued on Tuesday, when Knight scored one of Team USA’s eight goals in an 8-2 rout of Finland to open the Four Nations Cup. The Americans take on rivals Canada tonight.

So what’s changed?

The playing style, for one. After Sochi, former NHLer Ken Klee took over as coach and opened up the team’s play. Then, two world titles later, longtime assistant Robb Stauber took over as head coach in late 2016, and he turned that style into overdrive, freeing up his immensely skilled players to show off their creativity on the ice.

“The playing style, it didn't feel like a burden anymore,” Knight said. “And I think that was one of the biggest things that was weighing down on a lot of us was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that was a really unpleasant journey that we just took. I don't know if I could do that again for four years.’ So then having a clean slate, coming in and saying just go out, play hard, have fun, really removed a lot of that burden.”

It also helped that Knight was lined up alongside Coyne and Decker in 2015, and they’ve stayed together ever since.

“So Knighter, big body, goal scorer, she also has vision that is very, very helpful to our line,” Decker said. “And then Kendall Coyne is probably the fastest skater in women’s hockey right now, so being able to have that on your line, you know the pace of the game is going to be moving that much faster, and the puck is going to be moving faster as well. And then I kind of view my role as the mold between those guys, trying to make things happen out there.”

Said Knight: “We’re striving to be the people to push the envelope forward. Our trio has been allowed to be together for as long as we have for a reason.”

The next step is for the three players to lead Team USA to a gold medal in PyeongChang, to finally wipe away that bad taste from the Sochi experience.

But first, Canada awaits once again tonight.

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.