GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – The two teams that are expected to play for the Olympic gold medal in women’s hockey began the Winter Games tournament in very different ways. The United States had to overcome a surprising early deficit to beat Finland 3-1 on Sunday, while Canada steamrolled the Olympic Athletes from Russia 5-0.
That’s just fine with U.S. coach Robb Stauber. He preferred to get a quick measure of how taxing the tournament is going to be, rather than easing into it. “I’m very thankful for a hard-fought first game,” said Stauber, a Medina resident and former Gophers goaltender. “It shouldn’t be easy, and it was not easy.”
Judging from those opening games at Kwandong Hockey Centre, the Americans aren’t likely to be tested as much Tuesday when they play the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR). Sunday, they faced one of the best goalies in the history of the women’s game — former Gophers star Noora Raty — and rallied after giving up the game’s first goal with 5.8 seconds left in the first period.
It took great persistence to finally break through the Finns’ superb team defense. And after the U.S. took a 2-1 lead with a dominant second period, it had to kill two late penalties to preserve the victory. That gave the Americans a bigger boost than they would have gotten from a rout, a point they could all agree on.
“I’d rather have a tight game,” said U.S. forward Monique Lamoureux-Morando, who scored the tying goal and fired off a game-high seven shots on net. “To be behind in the first period, that’s not a position we’re used to being in a ton. But it was a really great test for us, and we battled back.”
The U.S. outshot Finland 42-24 and got 23 saves from goalie Maddie Rooney, an Andover native. Stauber called it “a huge game” for Rooney, who is taking off a year from Minnesota Duluth to play for the Olympic team. He also praised the line of Lamoureux, twin sister Jocelyne and Kelly Pannek of Plymouth, who is on leave from the Gophers.
To combat the tight-checking Finns, Stauber made a quick second-period adjustment to his team’s spacing that allowed it to create more speed. While it had the effect he was looking for — the U.S. outshot the Finns 23-5 in the period and outscored them 2-0 — Stauber still wants to see his team get more shots through traffic.
“We’re going to be a very tough team to beat if we keep getting pucks to the net and we hunt down loose pucks and rebounds,” he said. “I suspect, in the first game of the tournament, there could be some nerves involved. But all in all, I’m very happy with the performance and certainly the outcome.
“That was a great way to start, because you want it to be tough. We had to fight hard. It’s a great indicator of what it’s going to take to win the Olympics.”
OAR looked overwhelmed in its opener. It was outshot 48-18 by Canada and gave little support to goaltender Nadezhda Morozova, who was replaced by Nadezhda Alexandrova with about nine minutes remaining.
The team cannot use its country’s flag, uniforms or anthem at the Pyeongchang Games because of sanctions imposed by the International Olympic Committee, after an investigation showed Russia ran a state-sponsored doping program at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Athletes determined to be clean by the IOC were invited to compete in Pyeongchang.
Six women’s hockey players who competed in Sochi were among those given lifetime bans. Russia also was stripped of its sixth-place finish at the 2014 Winter Games. Last week, Russian media reported that the World Anti-Doping Agency took 16 of 23 Russian players to doping control before a practice shortly after their arrival in Pyeongchang.