Hilary Knight has a simple game plan when it comes to shootouts. She likes to grip it and rip it.
Fortunately for the U.S. Women’s National Team, that philosophy turned out to be the winning formula on Saturday afternoon in front of a crowd of 9,012 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
After watching a two-goal lead slip through their fingers in the third period, Team USA rebounded with a 3-2 victory on the strength of Knight’s lone goal in the shootout.
“I just go down and figure out where I want to put it and stuff and try to get it past her. If you’re going to shoot it, shoot it as hard as you can,” said Knight, who assisted on both U.S. goals to earn the Player of the Game honors.
Jessie Vetter was equally impressive on the defensive end, stopping 37 Canadian shots and then stoning Jayna Hefford, Caroline Ouellette and Meghan Agosta-Marciano in the shootout.
“She’s a rock back there,” said head coach Katey Stone, who enjoys a wealth of riches between the pipes with three equally adept goaltenders.
“She keeps everybody calm and composed. She is probably the most composed person in the building. She just has nerves of steel and she settled things down when we really needed it.”
Vetter showed those nerves of steel early on as she faced a lot of shots, many of them on Canadian power play. The U.S. penalty killing unit, while not as sharp as Stone would have liked, did frustrate Canada when they had the man advantage, including a 5-on-3 in the first period.
The holiday break, she thought, contributed to some uneven play and some sloppy habits.
“Honestly, I thought (our penalty killing unit) was average,” Stone said despite the team killing seven of eight opportunities. “It didn’t have the intensity and the aggression that we’ve had before the break. I think it’s just a matter of getting our legs back.”
In the wake of the last time these two teams met, which featured a line brawl at the end of the game, this game lacked a lot of the chippy play that took place in Grand Forks, but was still a physical affair from the outset. Determined to keep the game under control and off of SportsCenter this time around, American referee Erin Blair kept a close eye on the action.
“Obviously we don’t like to fight but if they’re on our home soil and think they’re going to push us around we’re going to push right back,” Knight said.
The U.S. got on the board in the first period on a goal created by Knight’s aggressive forechecking. Stripping the puck from a Canadian defender, Knight’s wrap-around attempt was stopped by Charline Labonte but the rebound came right out to Kelli Stack who was left alone in the slot for the easy put back.
The U.S. made it 2-0 with a power-play goal with nine seconds remaining in the second period as Megan Bozek’s shot from the point was tipped by Knight. Alex Carpenter fought off a defender at the side of the net and hammered home the rebound. Similar to the last game these two teams played in Grand Forks, N.D., the late goal appeared to be a momentum changer.
“That goal right at the end of the period was huge for us. She just battled and kind of willed herself to put that puck in,” said Stone, who was impressed with the play of her 19-year-old forward.
“She’s so smart and was one of our better players on the ice tonight and it showed. I’m just happy with where her game is going. It’s on the rise.”
As for the rest of her squad, Stone said the rust of the holiday break showed, for both teams, but they are confident they will get better every day. They won’t have a lot of time to change things up before these two teams will meet for the final time on Monday in before the puck drops in Sochi.
After losing the first three contests to their rivals, the U.S. has rebounded with three straight wins. Even so, Knight doesn’t put much stock into any talk of a momentum shift heading into the rubber match in Toronto.
“We going into every game 0-0 and we just have to play it as is,” she said. “Obviously the pucks weren’t bouncing as easily as they were earlier in the month but you have to find a way to win, dig deep and we found a way to do that tonight.”
With a month and some change before they head over to Sochi on Feb. 1, Stone said there is still plenty of work to be done.
“I would say we’re in a good spot. We didn’t play great tonight, and I’m sure they felt the same way. We had some rust on our game after the break but we needed the break,” Stone said. “The good news is that we found a way to win … and that’s great.
“These games are important, but we’re not going to live and die by them. We have to keep sticking to our plan of preparation and make sure that we’re heading in the right direction.”