GANGNEUNG, South Korea — For many at the Olympics in South Korea, Sunday began with an emergency alert at 5:10am about a 4.8 magnitude earthquake 100 miles to the south. The U.S. women’s hockey team got its wake-up call about 12 hours later.
Team USA survived a scare, falling behind Finland 1–0 after the first period, but rebounded to win 3–1 in its first game of the 2018 Games.
“A little bit of nerves,” Kendall Coyne said about the start. “A little bit of excitement, jitters. I think it showed in the first period. We were a little bit not-ourselves. But I think after that we regrouped. We got that first Olympic shift under our belt and we were ready to go.”
The U.S. controlled the puck for much of the first period. Fans even let out an earnest cheer when Finland finally got its first shot on goal. But Venla Hovi slid in the puck with just 5.8 seconds left before the break to put the Americans behind at the first intermission.
“No panic,” Coyne said of the team’s reaction to the deficit. “We’ve been in this position before, it’s nothing we can’t handle. Let’s go out there and get this game.”
Team USA came out energized in the second period, outshooting Finland 23–5. A pair of goals within three minutes put the U.S. in front for good. First Monique Lamoureux-Morando stuffed in a rebound, then Coyne scored off a one-timer from Hilary Knight. Just like that, the swarming Americans had swung the game.
“I don’t think we were pressing or anything like that,” Lamoureux-Morando said. “We stuck to it and got a lot of shots, lot of pucks to the net, got some odd man rushes and were able to put a few home to get the lead back.”
Stateside, one of the most anticipated events of these Games is the gold-medal final between the U.S. and Canada. It’s inevitable, right? Of course, the two best teams in the world—owners of all five gold medals since women’s hockey was introduced at Nagano in 1998, opponents in the gold-medal game in four of those five Olympics and in all 18 women’s world championship finals since 1990—are destined to once again meet in the final.
Well, the U.S. (and Canada, for that matter) would be wise not to look too far ahead. The early deficit was a reminder that no matter how heavy the favorites, a lot can happen once the puck starts bouncing around an icy rink, especially with Noora Raty, Finland’s all-world goalie, protecting the crease. But the U.S. made Raty work.
“The objective is to score more goals than them and I think the way to do it is by putting pucks on the net,” Coyne said. “Especially against a phenomenal goaltender like Noora.”
Finland, which upset Canada last April at the world championships, is widely thought of as the bronze-medal favorite. So the Finns offered a good opening test in a game that certainly mattered to both teams, though both teams will have more important games in the near future.
While the Olympic stage always brings pressure, neither side’s path to the gold-medal game would have been crushed by a loss. For this, both teams can thank the tournament’s unusual format in which eight teams are split into two groups of four—with all four teams from Group A (Canada, Finland, Russia and the U.S.) guaranteed to advance to the quarterfinals. While the top four teams all play each other in the round robin, only two of them will have byes into the semifinals, and the U.S. now has a leg up on getting one.
The U.S. roster has plenty of international experience, but for many the opening game was the realization of a lifelong dream. With the Finnish and U.S. flags hanging from the ceiling over one end of the rink, occasional chants of “U-S-A” from the 4,015 fans in attendance and the Olympic rings lining the boards, some jitters are understandable.
After the back-to-back goals, the Americans still had to skate through a tense final 30 minutes to the final buzzer. Finland outshot the U.S. 10–8 in the third frame, but 20-year-old Maddie Rooney, who emerged as the starter from a trio of goalies on the roster, was impenetrable when she had to be. The Finns had several chances on two power plays but Rooney held up and an empty-netter by Dani Cameranesi of the U.S. with 13 seconds left put the game away.
The night ended with both teams acknowledging the crowd, and each other, at center ice. Then the Americans formed a celebratory ring around the center circle and closed in for a victory huddle. USA moves on to Tuesday’s date with Russia with one win in the books—as expected.
Not the most earthshaking news of the day.