(U.S. goalie Skylar Vetter, USA Hockey photo)

The beauty of living in Minnesota if you’re a hockey fan is there’s almost always something going on with the sport that will grab your attention. Thursday was no exception, with the Wild holding an outdoor practice in St. Louis Park and discussing next year’s NHL Winter Classic at Target Field. Then came the international hockey doubleheader in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with the U.S. men in the quarterfinals of the World Junior Championship and the U.S. women in the gold medal game in the Under-18 World Championship.

The U.S. men lost 1-0 to Finland in the morning, ending a four-year medal streak, but what happened in the afternoon should ease any disappointment if you’re a U.S. hockey fan and especially a Minnesotan.

The U.S. Under-18 women’s team and Canada engaged in a thrilling battle in Bratislava, Slovakia, with a Team USA finally emerging with a 2-1 victory with 3:08 left in three-on-three overtime for its fifth gold medal in the past six years.

The Americans featured a huge Minnesota flavor, with 12 players having ties to the state and the team being coached by Minnesota Duluth’s Maura Crowell. And on the winning goal deep into overtime, a Minnesotan played a key role.

After the United States controlled play through most of the first 13 minutes of the extra session – even killing a four-on-three disadvantage to start OT, Canada started gaining territorial advantage. Team USA’s defensive pressure, however, started the decisive play. Defender Maggie Nicholson of Minnetonka High School and forward Kiara Zanon of Fairport, N.Y., pressured Canada’s Anne Cherkowski at the blue line and forced a turnover. Nicholson, a Gophers, recruit, pounced on the puck and raced down the ice, with Zanon in stride on her left. Nicholson veered slightly right to get Canada goalie Eve Gascon moving, then backhanded the puck to Zanon, who fired it into the yawning net, setting off a U.S. celebration.

Nicholson, the U.S. captain, wasn’t the only player with Minnesota ties who came up big. Goalie Skylar Vetter of Lakeville North made 31 saves, and none was bigger than a point-blank stop of Canada’s Lindsay Bochna with 6:29 left in OT. Vetter, a Gophers recruit, was named U.S. player of the game. In addition, Abbey Murphy, a Gophers recruit from Evergreen Park, Ill., scored in the first period for a 1-0 U.S. lead.

The victory for Team USA avenged an overtime loss to Canada in last year’s gold medal game. It also evened the U.S. record vs. Canada to 1-1 in this year’s tourney. Canada won 2-1 in the preliminary round.

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