May 12, 2012

From NEHJ: The one that got away

By Mike Zhe

There was every reason for the U.S. women to be down, or at least a little bit nervous, as they prepared for a winner-take-all overtime against Canada for the gold medal at the Women’s World Championship in Burlington, Vt., last month. 

Julie Chu and Kelli Stack -- looking glum after the U.S. lost in the 2010 Olympics -- suffered the same fate last month at the Women's World Championship in Burlington, Vt. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Thoughts easily could have drifted to the game-tying power-play goal they allowed to Meghan Agosta with less than three minutes remaining in regulation, when they figured they were one penalty kill away from glory.

There could have been tension wondering why the gold-medal game against Canada was so much more taxing and trying than their meeting in pool play a week earlier, a 9-2 laugher for the Americans.

No, there was positive history to draw on: three consecutive world titles, even if they’d been bridesmaids to Canada at the Olympics. The last World Championship ended with Hilary Knight’s (Hanover, N.H.) stop-and-tuck rebound of a Julie Chu (Fairfield, Conn.) shot for a 3-2 overtime win against the Canadians.

“It wasn’t down,” forward Kendall Coyne, the Northeastern freshman standout and former Berkshire School star, said of the team’s locker room. “There were jokes flying around the room: ‘Hey, Knighter, you got it again this year?’ It was all positive.”

All positive. Until it wasn’t.

Caroline Ouellette finished off an Agosta set-up three minutes into sudden death and, for the first time since 2007, the Canadians were celebrating a gold medal in the World Championship — this time on U.S. soil.

The first Women’s World Championship in America since 2001 came within a bounce of ending in favorable fashion for the hosts. Instead, they had to take grudging solace from the other positives — big crowds at the University of Vermont’s Gutterson Fieldhouse, and the knowledge that when it comes to international play, they and Canada are still a tightly-packed No. 1 and 2.

“That was one of our goals here in Vermont, playing on home soil,” said forward Kelli Stack, the former Boston College star who ranked second on the team in scoring with 13 points. “We wanted to get as many fans and as much awareness about our sport as we could.

“I think all the volunteers and all the support staff in Vermont did an excellent job. I thought the fans were incredible. Hopefully, this tournament is going to grow the sport and keep girls interested.”

The two games against Canada packed the 4,007-seat Gutterson Fieldhouse. The other U.S. games played to crowds of more than 2,000.

“Burlington was awesome,” Coyne agreed. “We’d go down Church Street and people were wishing us luck. We’d go to Starbucks and our waitress wrote, ‘Good luck, Jill’ (to forward Jillian Dempsey) on the check.” 

For the Americans, it wasn’t just showing off their game to a corner of their own nation. It was showing off a younger lineup, the core of which could take the ice in Sochi, Russia, in 2014 and vie for the Olympic gold medal that’s eluded them since 1998. 

Kacey Bellamy (Westfield, Mass.) was one of Team USA's veterans on the blue line. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

With stalwart defenseman Angela Ruggiero retired and two-time Olympian Caitlin Cahow (Branford, Conn.) injured, there was a new look, especially defensively, in front of goalie Molly Schaus (Natick, Mass.), with younger players such as Michelle Picard (Taunton, Mass./Harvard) and Josephine Pucci (Harvard) joining veterans such as Kacey Bellamy (Westfield, Mass.). 

The other New England players on the team were forwards Dempsey (Winthrop, Mass./Harvard), Erika Lawler (Fitchburg, Mass.) and Taylor Wasylk (Boston College). Veteran Meghan Duggan (Danvers, Mass.) sat out after suffering a concussion during her season with the Boston Blades.

Still, the start was encouraging.

Actually, it was almost surreal. In front of a sellout crowd at Gutterson on April 7, Knight and Chu scored two of five goals in the opening 5:32 for the Americans, setting the tone for a crowd-pleasing 9-2 win.

“Everyone was like, ‘Is this really happening? Is it really 5-0 in the first five minutes of the game?’” Coyne said. “’I think Canada was in shock. I don’t think they’d faced as much of a home-based crowd in America before.”

The nine goals were the most a U.S. team had ever scored in 103 games against Canada.

“Our team was excited to get out of the gate and start the tournament,” said Team USA coach Katey Stone (Watertown, Conn). “We attribute a lot to the atmosphere of the crowd.”

Both teams, as expected, took care of their business handily from there. The Americans routed Switzerland in their semifinal, 10-0, while the Canadians handled Finland, 5-1, setting up the rematch of a week ago, a year ago, an Olympics ago, etc.

But this time, it was the Canadians who came out hard. They scored twice in the opening five minutes of the second period to open up a 3-1 lead. The United States would rally late in the period and in the third, with Gigi Marvin scoring twice, but the game went to OT, and it was a neutral-zone turnover that sprung Agosta down the right wing on a 2-on-1, centering a pass for Ouellette to deposit the gold medal-winning goal.

“They just came out on their toes and we were back on our heels early,” Stone said. “They were opportunistic just like we are when we get turnovers.”

Nobody would say the Americans had their best possible team on the ice in Burlington. And, even though this loss should sting properly for a while, even the younger members can appreciate that they were part of something special.

“I felt like we got better every day,” Coyne said, “even though, by the color of our medal, it doesn’t show. As much as it was a loss, it didn’t feel like it. … It was pretty cool hearing the U-S-A chant. When we hear it, we think of ‘Miracle.’”

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com