The results represented progress, a pair of overtime losses indicative of the razor-thin gap between the world’s two best women’s hockey teams.
Everything else represented a celebration, a festival of women’s hockey and hockey in St. Louis, where the U.S. portion of the My Why Tour, presented by Toyota, concluded Dec. 17.
Both games featured enthusiastic crowds at Centene Community Ice Center, honors for some hometown favorites and, of course, world-class hockey between the U.S. and Canada. There was a decidedly St. Louis flair throughout the week, starting before the game on Dec. 15. 1998 Olympic gold medalist Shelley Looney, now the women’s head coach at nearby Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, was honored in a pre-game ceremony and dropped the ceremonial puck. U.S. defender Jincy Dunne, of O’Fallon, Missouri, also received a warm welcome from her hometown crowd. Hilary Knight scored the game-tying goal in the third period, but it was Canada who nabbed the winner in overtime.
“It was a great crowd here in St. Louis,” said U.S. forward and captain Kendall Coyne Schofield. “We’ve been here a few times and every time we’ve come here the support has been incredible.”
The game on Dec. 17 featured another pre-game ceremony, this one for U.S. goalie Nicole Hensley. The Lakewood, Colorado, native is a legend in her adopted hometown of St. Louis, where she had a record-setting collegiate career with the Lindenwood Lady Lions. After a video of some of her career highlights, Hensley went out and made some more as she stopped 28 of 31 shots. That was despite a few more distractions than usual from her most devoted fans.
“St. Louis has always had a special place in my heart and to get to play in front of all these little girls that I’ve coached over the years was pretty special,” Hensley said after the game. “It’s a little bit of a fight to stay focused as they’re all waving at you, banging on the glass every five seconds but couldn’t ask for anything more, like I said the crowd was incredible tonight and an honor to get to play at Lindenwood's rink.”
The U.S. would again make a third-period comeback to give themselves a chance in overtime, with Coyne Schofield and Savannah Harmon scoring goals. But for the second game in a row, Canada’s Marie-Philip Poulin bagged the overtime winner. That left the U.S. disappointed in the results but eager for another shot at their biggest rival.
“I think this rivalry is like no other and I think there's a lot of pride on the line each night,” said Harmon. “We definitely don't take [for granted] any game we get to play against them and I think that shows on both sides, everyone was battling and there’s just a lot on the line … doesn't matter what month, what day it is, we’re here to fight and we’re here to show pride for our country and we’re going to do anything we can to win so I think that’s just where the rivalry heats up every time.”
The next time the U.S. team takes the ice for a game it will be as the U.S. Olympic Women’s Hockey Team, with that 23-player roster set to be announced in the second intermission of the NHL Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. The U.S. team in Beijing will be an experienced group, with many returning players from the team that won the 2018 Olympic gold medal, but ensuring the team is playing at that gold-medal standard has been and will be the focus the rest of the way.
“I think the biggest growth has come for the players in terms of their commitment to who we are foundationally,” said U.S. head coach Joel Johnson. “And when I say that I mean on the ice, when someone plays Team USA what does it feel like, what does it look like? Every day. I think that’s when I’ve seen the growth is our commitment to some of those foundational principles of playing with the puck, without the puck, so that’s where I’ve seen the most growth.”
With a group that’s done so much winning, it often comes down to the little details that make the biggest difference. Cleaning up those details has been a focus of the team’s residency period, said Coyne Schofield, and is something the team will continue to focus on in defending its gold medal.
“We know we’re not going to be perfect,” Coyne Schofield said. “No one plays a perfect game, I’ve never seen one myself. There’s never going to be a perfect game, but how can we work towards eliminating mistakes that could end up costing us games? And I think we’ve been getting better at that every game we play, every time we practice, every film session we watch, and I think we’re in the right direction.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.