Experience This: U.S. Defense Proves Itself Against Canada

Judging by the Canadian press leading up to Saturday’s World Championship, the U.S. wasn’t in prime position to beat the Canadians by a 3-1 margin and end their run of 37 consecutive World Championship victories. The Americans were green in net and on the blue line, where only one of six defensemen had World Championship experience.

That inexperience was not a factor, mainly for two reasons — the goaltender and five defensemen were well-developed from their U.S. college hockey careers, and the experienced defensemen was Angela Ruggiero.

“In our defense you can see we have five new faces, and quite obviously having that No. 4 is a cornerstone,” said Ben Smith, referring to Ruggiero. “Having that No. 4 is a benefit to the other five and a benefit to one and all.”

“I’m not trading her,” he added facetiously.

At Harvard this season, Ruggiero was the cornerstone of a team that set a school record for shutouts and had the lowest goals against in the nation, despite having inexperienced goaltending and mostly inexperienced defensemen aside from her — the same conditions that exist with the U.S. team relative to international competition.

Smith refers to the college and university programs as the lifeline for the women’s side of USA Hockey, noting that the top men’s players are in the NHL, and the women don’t have an NHL. Of the six U.S. defensemen, four played U.S. college hockey this season — Ruggiero, UMD’s Julianne Vasichek, Providence’s Kelli Halcisak and Wisconsin’s Molly Engstrom. The other two, Brown’s Kim Insalaco and Wisconsin’s Kerry Weiland, are only a year removed.

College even provided USA Hockey with a ready-made defensive pairing in Weiland and Engstrom, who were Wisconsin teammates. Ruggiero notes that Smith has paired up a lot of different athletes who played together at some point.

When the young defensemen faltered, Pam Dreyer was there to shut the door, making 26 of 27 saves for the day. Dreyer, like Insalaco, is a year removed from Brown.

Canada’s Cherie Piper, for one, was not surprised by the strong performance of the U.S. defense. She would know, having played at Dartmouth for the past two years, though some of her teammates didn’t get the message.

“I think that’s completely irrelevant to the game today,” Piper said of the U.S. defensive inexperience.

While the lack of international experience has been looked upon as a negative by the Canadian press, it can be a positive given the Americans’ dismal international history against Canada, aside from the 1998 Olympics.

“All of the young defensemen and our new goalies bring a sense of youth,” Ruggiero said. “They’re fearless. They haven’t lost to Canada in any Olympics or any Worlds. They’re just out there having a good time.”

That’s not to say there aren’t some adjustments that need to be made. One aspect is playing in front of a large crowd, such as the 8,505 people who watched Saturday’s game. This U.S. team prepared for the crowd by practicing with loud techno music that simulated conditions where players couldn’t hear each other.

The U.S. also helped itself by silencing the Canadian crowd for almost the entire game, except for a Jennifer Botterill goal midway through the first period.

“Whether they could play in front of the crowd was the biggest question, but obviously they proved it tonight,” Ruggiero said. “We were psyched to get them the one game in front of a huge crowd so it won’t be a surprise on Tuesday [in the gold medal game].”

Smith felt the biggest adjustment was the speed of the game, which he says is hard to simulate in practice.

“For those five players tonight, it was like Grand Central Station,” Smith said

“But again, we had No. 4 … .We called that number.”