The U.S. Women’s National Under-18 Team has exhibited some nice symmetry so far in its quest for a second straight gold medal at the IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship. Two games, two 6-0 wins, two shutouts by two talented and committed goaltenders who provide the backbone for another squad that has the potential to dominate.
Beth Larcom earned the first shutout in Friday’s triumph over the Czech Republic and Alex Gulstene matched her effort Saturday against Russia in St. Catharines, Ontario. They’ve made the Americans the only team in the eight-team tournament yet to be scored upon.
It’s unlikely that will be the case throughout the entire tournament but the stability in net is in place after the seeds were planted last summer in Lake Placid. That’s where Larcom and Gulstene – who first met at a summer camp years earlier – were paired in the Under-18 Series versus Canada. Under the shared commitment to claim gold at any and all levels, they established a quick bond.
“As we went into Lake Placid together and camp back in June, we kind of hit it off right away,” Larcom said. “We’re definitely pretty close.”
That bond goes well beyond a meal and a movie on a day off.
“It’s huge to have a good goalie partner who you can push and pushes you as well to be the best goalie you can,” Gulstene said. “We’re both good friends so there isn’t too much negative energy. It’s all positive competition and definitely, either way, we know that we’ll push each other to be the best and whoever gets whatever game it’s all intended for the best of USA Hockey.”
Goalies coach Lucy Schoedel said she could sense some nerves on the part of both players once camp began in Buffalo earlier this month. They quickly settled, and eventually helped set the tone for a process that has gone exceptionally smooth to this point.
“They’ve brought a lot of confidence to the team, the team rallies around both of them equally,” Schoedel said. “It’s a really good spot to be in, you can count on either kid any night to play the game and to steal it if we need them to.
“It’s a big confidence boost and a way to keep the team in front of them relaxed and calm. They know that they can play their game, they can make mistakes without having to pay on the scoreboard. They have that trust, they play a little bit more loose.”
That was the case in the first two games, although the Russians kept things mildly interesting by playing to a scoreless first period. There will be greater challenges ahead, including Monday night’s encounter with the rivals to the North, but there will also be more time at practice for Gulstene and Larcom to spend with some of the best skaters in the world.
“There’s no doubt it’s elevated my game a lot. Every day in practice we’re challenged by some of the best players in the country, in the world,” Larcom said. “To be in front of those shots every day is something that’s going to bring your game up every day, no matter what. I’m challenged every day, we both are, and it’s definitely something were lucky to have because as soon as you step into a game situation, we know what we can do and we’re confident in our abilities because we’ve been up against the best players in the world.”
While both players said they have taken a tidbit or two from one another in order to improve their own game, their on-ice styles are quite different. The U.S. program allows for such flexibility and Schoedel indicated that’s one of the strengths of the system. There is never a concerted effort to alter a goalie’s style to keep things uniform.
In a sense, that freedom allows duos like Gulstene and Larcom to focus even more on pure moral and emotional support. The strength of their characters does the rest.
“Obviously they both want to play, they’re both competitive kids,” Schoedel said. “At the end of the day they want to take home a gold medal, if that means they’re on the ice or on the bench. They genuinely mean that. They set that example for the rest of the people.”
Head coach Joel Johnson suggested that Gulstene and Larcom will share playing time throughout the tournament unless one emerges and forces his hand in the medal round.
With each passing day, his confidence – as well as the confidence of each netminder – grows to the point where those daily decisions will not cause much of a headache.
“While you are competing for the same spot at the end of the day, above all, you’re teammates first,” Larcom said. “No matter who’s in net it’s not going to matter because at the end of the day it’s going to be for the gold medal.”
The U.S. team has done just that in each of the first eight U-18 events, winning gold four times and settling for silver four times. With stability in net it is pointing in that direction once again.