ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Despite the Minnesota locale, the Wisconsin ties were strong in Saturday’s United States vs. Canada pre-Olympic women’s hockey exhibition.
Between the two teams, five former Badgers took to the ice. Team USA featured Jessie Vetter, Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker and team captain Meghan Duggan, while Meghan Mikkelson skated for Team Canada.
USA picked up a 3-2 win, decided in a shootout. The lone shootout scorer for Team USA was Knight. She also assisted on the two goals scored during regulation and was named game MVP.
Vetter capped her 37-save game by stopping all three of Canada’s skaters during the shootout.
The game was hard fought, as both teams seemed to struggle finding rhythm after having taken a few days off for the holidays.
Whereas recent games between the two highlighted USA’s speed and precision and Canada’s physicality and persistent defense, this game was more about smaller-scale battles and maybe a larger battle of wills.
While she’s happy with the win and how the excitement of Saturday’s game was good for the fans watching, USA coach Katey Stone knows the game highlighted some of her team’s weaknesses.
"I’d say we’re in a good spot," Stone said. "We didn’t play great tonight. I would imagine they feel the same way. We had some rust on our game after the break. So the good news is we found a way to win. It was in the shootout, but we let them back in, which was a little disappointing.
"We got to keep sticking with our plan and preparation and make sure we’re headed in the right direction."
She mentioned 4-on-4, faceoffs and neutral zone work as priorities for improvement in the final month or so before the Winter Olympics in Sochi. She also praised the improved defensive unit, something she said the team had spent a lot time on in light of its disappointing third-place finish at the Four Nations Cup.
Hilary Knight agrees that there is work still to be done, but knows the tools Team USA is working with.
"We’re young," Knight said. "We’re fast. We’re physical. We’re an extremely talented team. We still have a long way to go. We’re going to get there.
"Unfortunately the puck wasn’t bouncing as easily as it was earlier on this month. We’ve got to find a way to win and we did."
Saturday was the sixth exhibition meeting between USA and Canada since October. Canada swept the first three meetings, but Team USA has come back to take the final three. The rubber match, so to speak, takes place Monday night in Toronto.
While the past two games have been a showcase of USA’s offensive prowess, Saturday may be remembered for showing how the team handles a little adversity.
Taking a 2-0 lead into the third period, it looked like USA might be rolling to another win. But Canada came out of the period break applying pressure, forcing mistakes and winning draws. Canada outshot the U.S. 15-0 in the first 12:42 of the third period.
Two quick goals from Canada and the confidence that came from dominating the prior eight or so periods of hockey was wearing off.
It was Vetter that really held Team USA together for those early minutes of period three. But Stone says that’s nothing new.
"She’s a rock back there. (She) keeps everyone calm and composed," Stone said. "She’s probably the most composed person in the building, honestly. She just has nerves of steel and she settled things down for us when we really needed it. (She) played very well."
Knight was Team USA’s first shooter and her lone goal was the difference. Her answer about how she approaches the shootout and what she was trying to do was refreshingly simple and honest.
"Put the puck in the net," she said. "I just go down and decide where I’m going to put it and see how she’s gapping up and I just try to get it past her. I think you just have to shoot it and if you shoot it, shoot it as hard as you can."
For Gigi Marvin, the shootout win is about confidence and momentum.
"That’s huge. That’s just going to add to our experience, our confidence," Marvin said. "Add to our preparation where we take from that and learn from it. Absolutely we take that and learn from it and use everything for our advantage and keep building toward February."
Team USA’s game is always going to be to try to use its speed. It’s to the opponent’s advantage to slow the game. Canada finally managed to do that Saturday, but Stone thought her team handled it well.
"I’d love to play that run and gun game, but we’ve adjusted being able to play a tougher, more physical, more patient game," said Stone. "We have to be prepared to play whatever."
After melees and fighting have brought a lot of attention and probably a few new viewers to the women’s game in general, and these matchups in particular, over the past few weeks, Saturday’s clean game that was topped with the excitement of the shootout was a good follow-up.
Vetter appreciated the practice of facing unfamiliar shooters before heading to the Olympics.
"Having any opportunity on the shootout is always a positive because you can practice them as much as you want in practice, but in a game situation when the game’s on the line it’s a little bit more pressure," she said. "So it was nice to get in one of those and obviously being on the winning side is even better."
Vetter also said facing the shootout isn’t too daunting, since she faces some of the best shooters in the world in practice on a daily basis.
"I say every day I’m glad my players are on my team because they’re lighting me up every other day. It definitely prepares you doing against teams like Canada and Finland and Sweden and a lot of the other teams that are doing really well," Vetter said. "It’s tough, but they’re getting me better and hopefully I’m doing the same, pushing them making they get better, too."
The game drew an estimated 9,000 fans and Stone and her players say they notice and appreciate the support --especially when they’re playing in front of a crowd that knows the game so well.
"When we go to the Olympics, it’s not just 21 players out there, it’s the entire country and to see the support out there at the rink and the kids with the signs and handing you hand-made drawings -- I mean, that’s important and that’s encouraging for us to have that support," Marvin said.
You’d think playing the same team over and over might get monotonous for the players, but Knight says that’s not the case.
"I’d play Canada every day if we could. I love playing against them. It’s a great rivalry, they’re a great team and we’re a great team and the two powers go at it, it’s a fun game. We’re just trying to promote the sport and help more younger girls pick up a stick."
One big remaining story line involves Madison native and current Gopher Amanda Kessel. Rehabbing from an undisclosed "lower-body injury," Kessel has yet to suit up for one of these pre-Olympic exhibitions and Stone said not to expect her in Toronto. Despite that, Stone notes that Kessel is "one of the most dynamic players" in the women’s game, that she expects her to be ready for Sochi and does not anticipate any lingering injury issues.
It’s extremely unlikely Kessel would be left off the roster, but without having played with the team for months, it’s not entirely clear where she’ll fit on the line chart. The line with both Lamoureux sisters and Duggan was the powerhouse in Grand Forks before Christmas, but kept very quiet on Saturday. The third line that features Knight, Alex Carpenter and Kelli Stack seemed to never leave the ice on Saturday. The largest line in stature, this line could be crucial for the U.S. as teams try to counter its finesse with physicality.
Though she didn’t show up on the score sheet, Decker has been making her presence known on the ice the past few games, bringing a physicality that her game hasn’t been known for in the past. Stone likes the show of passion, but says Decker needs to find a way to make that work along with the rest of her game.
"You know, it’s great. She’s got a big game for a smaller in stature player," Stone said. "The key is to have that balance. She’s such an explosive offensive player, as well. We want to make sure we keep getting more of that out of her, as well as getting the grit. She’s got a big future."
This is the second time around on this team for Knight, Vetter and Duggan. In 2010, Knight was still in school at Wisconsin and was the youngest member of Team USA. Amazingly, at 24, she’s now a veteran presence.
Asked what makes this run-up different than Vancouver, Knight joked that she hoped she has more wisdom this time around.
"Just being a better player, trying to find the balance that I’m not the youngest kid on this team anymore and helping the younger guys step into their shoes and really feel comfortable and play at the optimal part of their game," Knight said. "It’s a great feeling to be a part of this team and sort of be in the middle, a veteran but still a younger player. There’s so many things you can learn from so many individuals."
Rumors have been swirling that final cuts have been made and the Team USA roster is set and has been since before the team left Grand Forks, but no one from USA Hockey has confirmed. The speculated final two cuts were Lisa Chesson and future Badger Anne Pankowski.
Stone would not comment concretely on the state of the roster. When asked if the one on the ice in St. Paul was the final roster, she denied it and said there is still a lot of room for decisions to be made and implied her process would go to the final moment.
"It kind of comes to you at the eleventh hour, I think, and just the conviction of the decision and we’re working on that and our staff has spent such a tremendous amount of time talking about our decisions and as I mentioned right from the beginning, we’ll get the right players there," Stone said.
"We’ll have the right team representing the United States. We’ve got some flexibility for sure."
The official roster announcement comes Wednesday during intermission at the Outdoor Classic in Ann Arbor.