BEIJING – The screams could be heard echoing through the near-empty arena. The shockwaves on the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team’s gold-medal hopes may be even louder.
Team USA lost a key cog in their offensive machine when Brianna Decker went down awkwardly after getting tangled up behind the U.S. goal with Finnish defenseman Ronja Savolainen midway through the first period. As she lay face down on the ice, her teammates and medical staff waved for the stretcher.
As they watched the heartbeat of their team being carted off the ice at the Wukesong Sports Centre, some may have wondered if they were watching their gold-medal hopes leaving with her.
Instead, team captain Kendall Coyne Schofield brought everyone together and urged them to get their heads and their hearts back in the game. It wasn’t quite a “win one for the Gipper speech,” but it was just as effective.
“I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the message was to control what you can control,” said Olympic veteran Hilary Knight.
“We’ve got a lot of leaders in the team and thought our team did a really good job of bouncing back from something like that.”
Less than a minute later, Amanda Kessel took a pass from Savannah Harmon and danced her way into the slot and slipped a shot between the pads of Finnish goaltender Anni Keisala. And shortly thereafter Alex Carpenter did what she does best by potting a power-play goal to get the U.S. back on track.
“To see her react to that injury was devastating and nerve wrecking for our group. But I think the response that you saw from our group showed what we are made of,” Coyne Schofield said.
That was never more evident than in the second period when the U.S. took control and broke the game open, outshooting the Finns by a margin of 17-2 while breaking things open on a pair of goals from their captain a little more than a minute apart.
The look on head coach Joel Johnson’s face seemed to show the wheels were already spinning on how he was going to replace a player who has been the heart and soul of the program for so long.
“Dex is one of our captains and she’s one of the best centers in the world of women’s hockey,” Johnson said.
Decker was later seen standing by the glass with a cast on her left leg.
In the meantime, Johnson was impressed with how the team banded together and stepped up to fill a void created by the loss of a player who has amassed 170 points in 146 appearances with Team USA.
“I was really impressed with the adjustment that our lineup made and moving some people that as of four hours ago hadn’t played center or certainly hadn’t played center in the Olympics,” Johnson said.
“Jesse Compher steps in and Abby Roque shuffles around and Kelly Pannek shuffles around and I didn’t think we missed a beat. That’s a credit to the depth that we have.”
With Decker’s injury sidelining her for the rest of the tournament, the U.S. may reach even deeper into that talent pool and find a replacement who could arrive in time for the homestretch of the tournament while also passing China’s stringent Covid protocols.
“We’ll talk about that, if we have to,” Johnson said. “It’s something that every team and every federation has had to plan for, and we’re no different.”