Column: U.S. women struggle to convert scoring chances but still beat Czechs 4-1 in hockey
A good goaltender can be a great equalizer. Members of the defending champion U.S. women’s hockey team were harshly reminded of that Friday when they were repeatedly stymied by Czech goalie Klara Peslarova and needed a lucky deflection to rally from a second-period deficit against an Olympic newcomer.
A long shot by U.S. defenseman Lee Stecklein glanced off the stick of Czech forward Michaela Pejzlova and past Peslarova to break a tie at 6:49 of the third period, allowing the Americans to exhale and claw out a 4-1 victory at Wukesong Sports Centre. At no point was it easy: The Americans took 59 shots on goal but didn’t put it away until Savannah Harmon scored a rare power-play goal at 16:51 and team captain Kendall Coyne Schofield scored into an empty net with 5.6 seconds left.
“We had nothing to lose,” said Czech forward Denisa Krizova, who honed her skills at Northeastern University in Boston. “This is what we’ve dreamed of for a long time.”
The Czechs didn’t manage to take a shot on U.S. goalie Alex Cavallini in the first period and finished with just six overall, leaving it to Peslarova to keep them in the game. She did that and more, making acrobatic saves and maintaining her poise under constant pressure. “Goalies like that are hard to play against,” U.S. forward Abbey Murphy said.
Kendall Coyne Schofield has battled doubts and stereotypes in her Olympic hockey journey, and she wants to make the sport better for women.
To an extent, the U.S. is making opponents’ goalies look good. The Americans have taken 292 shots on goal in four preliminary-round games and one playoff game but have only 24 goals to show for it. They’re not spending enough time in the tough areas around the net.
“I think we’re just not generating the highest quality scoring chances as compared to just settling for some shots that are fairly easy to save,” U.S. coach Joel Johnson said.
“We’ve talked about that in other games. We talked about it in each intermission [on Friday] and we’ll continue to talk about that, whether it’s on our power play or five on five.”
The Czechs opened the scoring on their first official shot on goal, in the second period. Pejzlova, a two-time NCAA champion at Clarkson University, scored off a scramble in front at 4:59 after Krizova had won a battle along the boards. The U.S. pulled even 48 seconds later, when Hilary Knight crashed the net to convert a rebound from a shot by Coyne Schofield.
The Czechs had a chance to take the lead during a five-minute power play they gained during the second period, after Dani Cameranesi was penalized for boarding, but they couldn’t get their offense organized. Peslarova was solid, stopping Alex Carpenter — the Americans’ top goal scorer in the tournament — on a breakaway just over 17 minutes into the period.
“She was amazing. She was awesome,” Cavallini said. “I thought she did an amazing job just even with her rebound control and keeping her team in it. You could tell her team was feeding off of her and was gaining a lot of confidence from her as well.”
The Americans went ahead for good after applying pressure in the Czechs’ zone. Peslarova had lost her stick and had requested a stoppage in play because a strap on her goalie cage had come loose, but play continued and the puck came out to Stecklein. Her long shot tipped off Pejzlova and behind Peslarova, who flung her cage to the ice in anger while the U.S. celebrated the goal.
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“Our forwards had been doing a really good job all game of getting the puck back low and getting it up to us high and we just need to find a way to get the puck through,” said Stecklein, a three-time Olympian who considered retirement after the Pyeongchang Games but decided she missed her teammates too much to hang up her skates. “I was hoping for a tip somehow.”
She got it, though not from a teammate. “I think she had two, three shots on that shift. And they were good shots, they were the shots we talked about,” Johnson said. “They were two spaces that we could either tip the puck or create offense from. That’s tough for a [defenseman] in that spot to try to get it through when their goaltender can see it and also they’ve got people trying to block shots.”
The U.S. women got a lucky break Friday, but they can’t rely on luck to carry them to their second straight gold medal. They don’t yet know their semifinal opponent because teams will be reseeded after the quarterfinal round, which continues through Saturday. But they do know they’ll have to be sharper and make their own luck.
“We’re actually probably overpassing laterally and sending pucks quickly through the slot that needed to just be put softly on net and make it chaos and a huge mess in front,” Johnson said. “And that’s something that we’ll continue to learn. I thought we did make some adjustments in practice and it showed up in our possession again and in our shot attempts, but we’ve got to just keep tweaking that, and hopefully we learned from it today.”
Better a lesson than a loss.
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