Team USA took the first strides in the Hilton Family Skate to 2006 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul against a team of WCHA All-Stars. The objectives heading into the game and the reactions after the USA’s 5-1 victory varied greatly, both between the two teams and individual members.
The result left national team coach Ben Smith less than impressed.
“I’d like to see us complete a pass,” he said.
Though the ragged play left much to be desired, Smith understood that improvement must come in “small, graduated steps”. He compared the work and adjustments necessary to prepare the team for the Olympic games in Turino, Italy to “a lot of sanding and coats of polyurethane”.
Still, Smith found some aspects of the game encouraging. Natalie Darwitz, in her first game back after sitting out the recent Four Nations Cup with an ankle injury, earned Player of the Game honors for the USA. Darwitz led the team with two goals, including the game’s first goal on her second shift . She finished off a pretty three-way passing sequence with Minnesota line mates Krissy Wendell and Kelly Stephens by redirecting Wendell’s pass behind Bemidji State sophomore Emily Brookshaw.
For her part, Brookshaw played well in stopping 17 of the 19 shots she faced in just under half of the contest. The only other puck to elude her came when Kathleen Kauth fought off a defender and slipped home the rebound of a Courtney Kennedy shot.
The WCHA All-Stars gathered as a team for the first time only two days before the game. That lack of preparation time became obvious on special teams in the second period. When the WCHA went on the power play, they struggled to get the puck out of their own end of the rink. One USA penalty-killing unit after another buzzed the WCHA net shorthanded.
Shortly after junior Riita Schaublin of Minnesota-Duluth replaced Brookshaw in net, Team USA converted three straight power play opportunities for a 5-0 lead, as Stephens, Darwitz, and Katie King tallied the goals. For the period, the WCHA was out shot 17-1.
“Between the second and third period, we set a goal that we wanted to score a goal,” said Minnesota sophomore Bobbi Ross, “and (for the third period) we wanted to shut them out.”
Wisconsin senior Sharon Cole took care of the first objective when she skated in on a partial break and picked the upper right corner on Chanda Gunn. Cole capitalized on a turnover just outside the blue line, eluded a defender, and noticed some space on Gunn’s far side.
“I looked up and saw the shot and thought, ‘I may as well go for it.'”
The WCHA also stepped up their defensive effort and succeeded in shutting out the USA in the final period by holding them to only nine shots.
For the many of the players in the game with Minnesota roots, the game served as a homecoming.
“I love playing in Minnesota and having my family and friends in the crowd,” said Cole, named Player of the Game for the WCHA.
The crowd of 5,739 reserved the loudest cheers for those members of Team USA who earned national championship rings at the University of Minnesota. Smith started all five former Gophers, and they took advantage by notching at least one point each while combining for three goals and six assists.
Though some members of Team USA have been playing together for years, they are still getting acquainted with some of their newer teammates. Players like Liz Keady and Rush Zimmerman have recently joined the top national team, trying to make an impact and ensuring a spot on the final Olympic roster. The training schedule doesn’t leave that much time for socializing.
“We’re doing two sessions a day,” Darwitz said.
Stephens said the team tries to throw in an icebreaker now and then. But overall, most of the learning centers on hockey.
“We’re focused on learning our systems,” she said.
Even as they adjust to new teammates, they enjoyed the chance to play against others with whom they recently shared a locker room.
Darwitz said, “It was fun – we’d give each other little smirks on the ice. It was good to see them.”