World Domination

Refocused And Retooled, Team USA Returns To Top Of The Podium At Women’s Worlds

Organizers chose the slogan “Passion in the Game” to symbolize the 2015 IIHF Women’s World Championship. That motto could just as easily encapsulate women’s hockey in general, and the U.S. Women’s National Team in particular.

Team USA came to Malmö, Sweden, having won four of the last five Women’s World Championships, but there was a little thing called the Olympics that had some observers questioning the Americans’ international supremacy.

Canada had set the gold standard on Olympic ice, winning the last four gold medals after the U.S. captured the inaugural tournament in Nagano, Japan, in 1998.

Their most recent meeting 14 months ago in Sochi, Russia, was a particularly devastating loss for the Americans, who held a 2-0 lead with just three and a half minutes remaining in the third period, only to see Canada rally to tie the game, and then win it 3-2 in overtime.

So to see a three-goal lead evaporate in the span of five minutes during this year’s gold-medal shootout brought back a bitter taste of déjà vu heading into the final period.

This time though, the Americans showed the resiliency of a champion and pushed back against the Canadian surge with a pair of third-period goals to nail down a 7-5 victory.

Stephanie Anderson, 18, and Annie Pankowski, 27, celebrate the first goal of the game as the U.S. Women's National Team stormed out to a 5-2 lead before holding on to win the gold-medal game, 7-5. The victory marked Team USA's fifth IIHF Women's World ChaStephanie Anderson, 18, and Annie Pankowski, 27, celebrate the first goal of the game as the U.S. Women's National Team stormed out to a 5-2 lead before holding on to win the gold-medal game, 7-5. The victory marked Team USA's fifth IIHF Women's World Cha

“It’s a solid team win and that’s rare in our sport: to have everyone collectively come together as a unit and just roll the lines, it didn’t matter where you were,” said two-time Olympian Hilary Knight, who was named the tournament MVP. “To have a team win, it’s something special.”

In August, USA Hockey made a coaching shift and hired NHL veteran defenseman Ken Klee to take over the head coaching duties. One of his first moves was to pair Knight with fellow Olympians Brianna Decker and Kendall Coyne on the same line.

The move paid off eight months later when Knight led the tournament in scoring with Decker right behind her, and all three of them tied for the lead at the top of the plus/minus statistics.

“They’re all Olympians who have big expectations for themselves every night, and that’s great,” Klee said. “They’ve had great chemistry since the first day when I put the line together.”

And even more importantly, the trio stepped up when it mattered most.

In a semifinal shellacking of Russia, Decker led the way both on the ice and in the locker room. In addition to stepping in to serve as team captain in the wake of Meghan Duggan’s absence due to an illness, she also netted a hat trick and added an assist.

“We hit a little bit of adversity early on, but our line pressured well and we knew we’d just have to stay focused and work together as a team,” she said.

In the final, the line came up big again, combining for five points. Team USA had a comfortable 5-2 lead halfway through the game, having already forced Canada to make a goalie change during the first intermission.

When Canada scored twice in 98 seconds, Klee stepped down from his perch on the bench to address his defense corps before making his own goalie change in an attempt to wake up his team.

The move didn’t take root right away as Canada tied the game on the first shot they fired at new netminder Alex Rigsby.

“We needed to get back to doing the little things well, that’s what wins hockey games,” Klee said. “We got caught a couple of times where we didn’t transition well, and they capitalized. We just needed to sort it out and settle down and get back to our style.”

That style was on display midway through the final period when Decker won the faceoff and played the puck to Anne Schleper who found Coyne near the wall.  The Northeastern University star quickly gained the blueline, and sent a pass to Knight who took it to the Canadian zone. Meanwhile Decker drove toward the net and was in position to tap in a perfect pass from Knight for what turned out to be the gold medal-winning goal.

Brianna Decker, 14, converts a pass from linemate Hilary Knight for what would prove to be the winning goal in the U.S. Women's National Team's 7-5 victory over Canada in the 2015 IIHF Women's World Championship in Malmö, Sweden.Brianna Decker, 14, converts a pass from linemate Hilary Knight for what would prove to be the winning goal in the U.S. Women's National Team's 7-5 victory over Canada in the 2015 IIHF Women's World Championship in Malmö, Sweden.

Coyne’s power-play marker less than two minutes later would eventually clinch the gold-medal celebration but not before the Canadians pressed to get things close.

“They were lights-out good. We obviously have  a great team and every one of our lines scored today, which is awesome,” Klee said.

“That’s kind of what I’ve been preaching from the get-go, that we’re going to roll four lines and all four can score and all four can obviously make an impact. But our top line today really did a great job.”

When Klee took over the team in August, he didn’t know much about the players, or their skill level, so before accepting the job, he made some phone calls. One was to former NHL teammate Pierre Turgeon, whose daughter Elizabeth was a member of the U.S. squad prior to her passing in 2010.

“He told me right away that the girls are great and skilled, and that the sky’s the limit,” he said. “He was right on and I’ve enjoyed every day. It’s great [to be the coach] when you have the best players in the world, and they just love to play.”

And while Klee wasn’t a part of the U.S. program when Sochi came around, he knew that disappointment would fuel the team forward.

In Malmö, Klee had a mix of veteran leadership and youth with 14 Olympians on the roster, but also seven players who are 21 or younger.

“We spend two weeks together every other month and it’s great,” he said. “Half the players on this team are in college, half are out of it.”

One of those newcomers was Boston College senior Emily Pfalzer, the latest in a long line of talented youngsters to come through the U.S. developmental pipeline. Four years ago she tasted victory on Swedish ice as an 18-year-old playing on the U.S. Women’s Under-18 Team.

And now here she was, racing across the ice to be the first to hug Rigsby as the final buzzer sounded. They were quickly joined by their teammates who surrounded them in a joyous celebration that once again proved that “Passion in the Game” was alive in Malmö.

For the Canadians, the sting of losing was tempered by the knowledge that they continued to fight to the very end, just as they always do. And for the Americans, hoisting the silver chalice was proof that they have what it takes to bounce back from a bitter Olympic loss and keep focusing on the future.

“It’s a huge win,” Knight said. “We had the monkey on our back from Sochi. It didn’t feel good. We worked hard all year, all summer long, even during the year, and we came out with a win. And it feels really good.”

Risto Pakarinen is a freelance writer based in Helsinki.
Issue: 
2015-04

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