GANGNEUNG, South Korea – The shot heard round the women’s hockey world was accompanied by the sound of vulcanized rubber hitting iron.
Kelli Stack’s clearing attempt danced and skipped toward the open net vacated by Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados before taking a slight left turn and squarely hit the goal post. In a battle of wills between the two giants in the game, Stack could not will the puck a half an inch to the right.
That was the difference between the thrill of golden victory and the agony of Olympic defeat as Canada would tie the game in the final minute to force overtime, where they would eventually win their fourth straight Olympic gold.
The memory of that fateful February night four years ago is never far from the minds of the U.S Women’s Team. It has fueled the fire that pushes these players to do one extra rep in the gym and dig just a little bit deeper every time they step on the ice.
“I know that for each player on that team it’s a loss that they’ll never forget,” said defenseman Lee Stecklein, who was the youngest player on the U.S. team in Sochi. “Nothing can take that away, but we want to do everything in our powers so that we never have to feel that again.”
On the eve of their first game of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, these women are ready to put those memories to rest and write a new chapter in the relatively young history of women’s Olympic hockey.
Since landing in South Korea 10 days ago, there has been no talk of past disappointments or future opponents standing in the way of their collective goal. All the focus has been on the 23 women inside the U.S. locker room and their resolve to bring home the first Olympic gold for the U.S. in 20 years.
“Our mission has been the same all year, starting with the residency program. You have to make adjustments, obviously, but our mission has been clear since day one,” said team captain Meghan Duggan, who is one of six players competing in their third Olympics.
That’s been evident from the time they set foot on the practice ice here. There has been a single-minded focus to push past the distractions that come with skating in the glow of the Olympic flame and stay focused only on themselves rather than their next opponent. There’s been a crispness to their passes and extra jump in their step as they fine-tune what is already running at peak proficiency.
“I think everybody has hit their stride and making great passes, great plays,” Monique Lamoureux said after the team’s final tune up before the puck drops tomorrow afternoon against Finland.
“Everyone is kind of itching to go right now.”
For head coach Robb Stauber, the puck can’t drop soon enough. He has been pleased with his team’s preparations, especially over the past month. They have worked hard to correct some of the offensive deficiencies that plagued the team during the pre-Olympic tour. And like his players, he can’t wait for the puck to drop.
“For the last four or five weeks we’ve been sharpening our game. You can sense it and feel it. They get on the ice and things are a little cleaner,” he said. “You can sense that they know the focus needs to be dialed up along with the intensity and the precision. We can see it.”
The coaching staff spent much of the final weeks of the team’s residency program in Tampa, Fla., emphasizing the need to get pucks to the net and then outwork their opponents for the rebound. The message has been heard loud and clear.
“You can’t be scared to shoot it and you can’t look off a shot when you have that opportunity. That’s what we’ve been harping on. Just shoot the puck more,” said Hilary Knight, who has 101 career goals in international competition.
“It’s like that old Wayne Gretzky quote, ‘you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.’”
|Sun., Feb 11||Finland||Preliminary||W, 3-1||Kwandong Hockey Centre||NBCSN
|Tues., Feb 13||Olympic Athletes From Russia||Preliminary||W, 5-0||Kwandong Hockey Centre||NBCSN
|Thurs., Feb. 15||Canada||Preliminary||L, 1-2||Kwandong Hockey Centre||NBCSN
|Mon., Feb. 19||Finland||Semifinals||W, 5-0||Gangneung Hockey Centre||NBCSN
|Thurs., Feb. 22||TBD||Gold-Medal Game||1:10 p.m./11:10 p.m. (Feb. 21)||Gangneung Hockey Centre||NBCSN