Column: U.S. women’s hockey team wins first game but loses one of its toughest players
Brianna Decker’s raw screams, the cries of an athlete who knows her body well enough to instantly realize something had gone terribly wrong at a terrible time, suddenly filled the mostly empty, echoing spaces of Wukesong Sports Centre on Thursday.
Decker, a two-time Olympic medalist and alternate captain of the U.S. women’s hockey team, had become tangled with Finland defender Ronja Savolainen near the Americans’ net in the first period of their Olympic opener. Both women fell to the ice in a heap, with Decker’s left leg badly twisted. Decker’s loud cries conveyed her profound pain and sudden fear, sending a shiver down the spines of all who heard them. Medical personnel quickly came to her and she was carried off on a stretcher.
“It was awful, there’s no other way to put it,” U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said. “She’s one of the toughest, strongest players in the world, so to hear her react like that obviously was devastating for our group.”
Until that point, neither team had managed to score. That changed quickly.
After gathering for a few moments to settle their minds and figure out new line combinations, the Americans seized control, opening their defense of their 2018 Olympic title by scoring twice in two minutes, 23 seconds on the way to a 5-2 victory. Playing the first of four preliminary-round games, they shook off the rust they’d accumulated since Dec. 17 —the last time they had played before coronavirus precautions cut short their pre-Olympic exhibition schedule — and relied on the depth and sharp skills that have long made them and Canada the sport’s still-unassailable superpowers.
As the Games return to Beijing in their winter format, the stakes have changed. It might be enough just to avoid calamity.
They outshot Finland 52-12 in extending their record against the Finns to 9-0-0 in Olympic play. And Finland is more than respectable, having earned a bronze medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.
“I think the response that you saw from this group showed what she means to this team,” Coyne Schofield said of Decker, “and we hope she’s OK.”
Decker was using crutches for support and her left foot was strapped into a walking boot by game’s end. A USA Hockey spokesman said Decker’s tournament is over, but coach Joel Johnson hesitated to definitively rule her out. Johnson also wouldn’t elaborate on whether he has delved into the procedures that would allow the team to replace Decker on the roster if her injury is as bad as it looked and sounded.
“Decks is one of our captains and she’s one of the best centers in the world of women’s hockey,” Johnson said. “We’re obviously very concerned. We’re still evaluating what the injury looks like, and we should know more in the coming days.
“But I was really impressed with the adjustment that our lineup made in moving some people that as of four hours ago hadn’t played center or certainly hadn’t played center in the Olympics. Jesse Compher steps in. Abby Roque shuffles around and Kelly Pannek shuffles around and I didn’t think we missed a beat.”
Amanda Kessel, a three-time Olympian, got the U.S. team going at 10:37 of the first period, aggressively going to the net to overwhelm Finland goalie Anni Keisala. Alex Carpenter, who won a silver medal in 2014 but was left off the 2018 team, extended the lead to 2-0 with a power-play goal at the 13-minute mark thanks to a fine setup from Pannek.
Coyne Schofield doubled the lead in the second period, using a defender as a screen to score at 5:32 and deflecting a shot from in close at 6:36. Carpenter scored again in the third, sandwiched between a pair of goals by Susanna Tapani.
“USA started to skate a little more than we did and that is what showed on the scoreboard,” said Minnamari Tuominen, a standout defenseman for Finland who advanced her hockey career by playing at Ohio State.
Johnson said Decker’s injury didn’t make players angry, but he saw “some extra emotion that took place inside of everybody” when they sat in the locker room during the first intermission.
The Beijing Olympics are officially set to begin Friday with the opening ceremony. Here’s how to watch and stream NBC’s coverage of the event.
“I thought after the injury we kind of had to reset a little bit and we got into the dressing room and players said a few things and coaches said a few things,” said Johnson, who added he thought a penalty should have been called on the play that led to Decker’s injury but said it was more a difference of opinion with the game officials than a missed call.
Players reacted maturely and calmly, fueled more by determination than anger. “You never like to see that happen, but I think our team did a good job keeping focus and continuing with the task at hand,” Carpenter said.
“It’s been a long time since we had an international game against any team, and to be able to put up numbers like that I think was a good start for us.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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