PLYMOUTH, Mich. — There has been a lot of talk about an American team that had only a couple of days to prepare for the world championship, but you’d never know it if you watched their opener on Friday.
As Canadian forward Natalie Spooner put it, after her team’s 2-0 loss to a host American team that came out firing and fast and dominated for stretches of the first two periods, and some of the third: “We came out pretty flat.”
They did, too. And that’s in large part because Team USA did just the opposite.
Canada now finds itself in an 0-1 hole after being on the wrong side of a break-neck, fast-paced affair on Friday night at a nearly-full USA Hockey Arena. The hosts and defending champions put on a show here against their longtime rivals in front of a crowd that featured at least one guy in an American flag-covered suit jacket, and a good number of signs with messages of thanks to the American women.
“It was just a different feeling this time,” said American defenceman Kacey Bellamy. “Maybe because of everything that happened, how united we were, and just such a family.
“I thought our team responded really well from all the adversity we faced.”
The adversity, of course, involved a battle with USA Hockey for a fair contract—more pay, equal support, and an investment in development programs for women and young girls. Team USA threatened to boycott the tournament they’re hosting unless a new agreement was reached, which didn’t happen until three days before their opener.
Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados—who backstopped the country to its last two Olympic gold medals—stood on her head for much of the game, and kept this Canadian team in it when they were being badly outshot, 12-5 after the first, and 20-9 through two periods.
You could feel the American momentum building, with sustained stretches of chances, particularly from the No. 1 line of Brianna Decker, Kendal Coyne and Hilary Knight, and their second line of Kelly Pannek, Jocelyne Lamoureux and Amanda Kessel.
It was Decker, the NWHL MVP this past season, who struck first for Team USA, after she was “spoon-fed” a back-door pass, as she’d later put it, from defenceman Megan Bozek, who she grew up playing against.
“I knew exactly what she was gonna do,” said Decker, grinning.
And then about five minutes into the third, defenseman Gigi Marvin—the oldest American on the roster, having just celebrated her 30th—sent a point shot through traffic that got past Szabados to make it 2-0. Marvin dropped down for a low fist-pump while her teammates mobbed her, and this largely American crowd again came to its feet.
“If you know me, there’s nothin’ better than sniping a goal, you know?” Marvin said after the game, with a smile.
Szabados, who made a spectacular pad save on Kali Flanagan in the first when she slid across the crease to shut the door on a shot in close, didn’t see much on that second goal. “I picked it up at the last second,” she said. “I don’t know if went off Pou [Marie-Philip Poulin] or through her.”
The Canadian goalie, who faced 29 shots, was named her team’s player of the game. “I don’t think you’re ever satisfied unless it’s a ‘W’ for your team,” she said. “Some things to build off …It’s pretty obvious that we didn’t play our best the first two periods.”
Canada had most of its chances in the third, and very few early on. Spooner had a couple shots that went wide, and Poulin, the team’s captain and author of the game-winners at the last two Olympics, rang one off the post. But largely, the Americans were able to limit Canada’s chances.
“We were rock solid in front of the net, and keeping all the plays to the outside,” Marvin said. “There’s maybe two plays in my memory that were directly in front of the net.”
American goalie Nicole Hensley—wearing red, white and blue-striped pads and gloves and helmet—had an 18-save shutout, and was her team’s player of the game.
At the end, after listening to their anthem, the American women met at centre ice and saluted fans, some of whom had signs thanking the American women for being “Bold.”
The Americans take on Russia tomorrow afternoon—it’s a short turn-around, but Decker said they’d celebrate this win “until midnight” on Friday—while Canada plays Finland Saturday night.
Should Canada and the Americans meet again in a week’s time, in the gold medal final, which is the expectation since it’s never ended any other way at a world championship, the Canadians will need to pick up the pace, and play from the start.
“We’re gonna have to start the game like that,” Spooner said, referring to the third period, in which Canada registered 11 shots. “We’re gonna have to come out strong, good energy, use our speed against them, and just create more offense and put pucks on the net and put them in.”
It’s easier said than done against an American team that has won six of the last seven titles here, that’s playing in front of its home crowd, that’s riding the wave of having signed an historic agreement with USA Hockey.
“It was a great starting point,” Marvin said. “But I don’t think by any means that’s a peak for us.”
It’s far from a peak for Canada, to be sure. And as Poulin pointed out before this tournament began, the Canadians are hungry, having not won a world title since 2012.
“I think we’re on a mission right now,” Poulin said. “We wanna bring it back to Canada.”
The tournament has only just begun, but the stage is already set for quite the final, should these North American rivals meet again.