When U.S. coach Joel Johnson was asked about his team’s strengths in advance of the IIHF Under-18 Women's World Championship that begins Friday in St. Catharines, Ontario, he cited multiple areas.
“When you look at our forwards up front, one of the things that the majority of them have is speed. So you have team speed,” Johnson said. “Make us puts some pressure on an opponent. We have very active defensemen that are willing to jump in and, frankly, we are encouraging them because we need them to be part of our offensive game. And then our goaltending has been great.”
Such is the makeup of the defending gold medalists, who got past Canada in overtime last year to take the top prize in Buffalo, N.Y. That does not mean there is no room for improvement. Johnson utilized a scrimmage against the Buffalo Beauts of the NWHL on Tuesday to analyze defensive positioning and to focus on special teams, the vital components of a successful unit once the tournament begins.
The 2016 U.S. Women’s National Under-18 Team features seven return players from last year: forwards Rebecca Gilmore, Presley Norby, Natalie Snodgrass and Alex Woken, and defensemen Cayla Barnes, Grace Bowlby and captain Patricia Marshall. Already, the veterans are seeing a special quality to this year’s edition.
“We’re all looking at each other as equals,” said Gilmore, who had a team-high nine points in last year’s gold-medal run. “You can see everyone’s working their butts off; it’s not like we’re looking for one person to do it all.”
The U.S. opens play against the Czech Republic on Friday and continues the preliminary round against Russia on Saturday and Canada on Monday. The medal round starts Tuesday, and the Americans are a pretty good bet to be involved; they’ve played for gold eight years in a row since the event began.
Managing those expectations is one of Johnson’s primary duties. He wants his players to expect greatness but not to take it for granted, especially when seven other teams will be taking aim at the top spot.
“Last year we were really hungry for a gold medal. We hadn’t won in a while,” Johnson said, noting a three-year drought since a 2011 gold. “And now that we have had that opportunity, we have to realize the shoe is on the other foot now and every team we play is going to be gunning for us.
“It’s much harder to repeat anything, whatever sport you’re in. … We know it’s going to take an extra effort, even above what we did last year, to win another gold.”
Goalies Alex Gulstene and Beth Larcom figure to split time throughout the tournament, as Johnson has seen both play at an elite level through camp. He sees that as a good problem to have. Other newcomers have also fit in well, fully understanding the significance of the event.
“There’s always that expectation that’s riding on all the players on this team, but because of our hard work and the camps in the past that have been building up to this, I think we have the confidence to follow through with our high expectations,” said forward Sydney Brodt, who was on the U18 Select Team in Lake Placid, N.Y., last summer.
“Once you realize you’re on the world championship team, you have that extra intensity on the ice because you’re representing your whole country. It’s a big deal.”
The tournament takes place at the Meridian Centre in St. Catharines, making it the first one hosted by Canada since 2008, when the U.S. swept five straight games to claim gold. The Americans and Canadians have played for the gold medal each year since, splitting the title four times apiece.
Johnson and some of his players admitted to keeping an eye on Canada’s progress, but he knows that the Czech team and the Russians are improving at a rapid pace. He tells his players that the biggest game of the year is the next one on the schedule, regardless of opponent.
Those that have been through it before know that focusing on the task at hand is the best way to gain glory in the end.
“Our coach always says that we’re always going to be measured by whether we bring home the gold medal or not,” Gilmore said. “That’s just part of the experience, it’s part of being on the U.S. national team. But day-to-day, we try to execute our values rather than worry about that gold medal.
“Obviously you train for the gold medal, you prepare for the gold medal, but we also prepare to be good teammates and be true to our values. That really keeps us going.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
|DATE||OPPONENT||RESULT||U.S. PLAYER OF THE GAME|
|Fri., Jan. 8||Czech Republic||W, 6-0||Grace Zumwinkle|
|Sat., Jan. 9||Russia||W, 6-0||Alex Woken|
|Mon., Jan. 11||Canada||W, 4-1||Rebecca Gilmore|
|Thurs., Jan. 14||Sweden (Semifinal)||W, 4-0||Natalie Heising|
|Fri., Jan. 15||Canada (Gold Medal Game)||W, 3-2 OT||Natalie Snodgrass|