Team USA took the silver medal at the Women’s World U18 championships over the weekend after a heart-breaking 3-2 overtime defeat against rival Canada. The loss snapped a string of four consecutive gold medals in the event, and ended a run of US dominance in every major international tournament dating back to the 2014 Four Nations Cup.
Overall, it was a successful tournament for the United States, which won their first four games of the tournament with relative ease, before falling to Canada in a heart-breaker. But with the women’s hockey landscape being what it is, winning gold medal games against Canada is the ultimate marker, and this year’s team happened to come up short.
Here’s one last breakdown of a US team that was very good, but not quite good enough when it counted most...
-Before the championship game, I said special teams would be a huge key in the game, and that was before I knew the officials would call a truly incredible 17 penalties. Canada went 3/8 with the man advantage; the US went 1/9. That’s the entire difference right there.
I don’t want to dwell on the officiating, because there are other reasons the US lost and Canada won, which we’ll get into. But the lingering indelible image of this tournament will forever be Abbey Murphy, in overtime, skating towards her bench, trying to re-buckle the helmet that has literally been ripped off her head by an opponent, and the official having to skate up to inform her that Murphy has been assessed the only penalty on the play.
It’s the classic conundrum when the US and Canada meet in women’s hockey. Who officiates when people from the only two countries that take the sport seriously can’t officiate? Whoever they had on Sunday couldn’t have been the best option.
Not that this was an easy game to officiate. Canada had a deliberate strategy to make the game as physical as possible. The gamble that the officials weren’t going to call everything, and whatever they did call, would be matched in quantity by the other side regardless of quality, seems to have paid off. Canada wasn’t going to score at even strength in this game. But their top line was much more effective on the power play than the US top unit, and that was enough to swing the game.
-On the US power play: woof. I mentioned throughout the preliminary round that the US power play wasn’t quite clicking like it should, and was hoping it would gel as the tournament progressed. It did not.
The US got a power play opportunity with about five minutes left in regulation tied 2-2. They called timeout to set something up and rest their top line. It felt like their big chance to score the game-winning goal. They didn’t get a shot on goal on that power play, let alone a scoring chance.
The big problem from my perspective was the US being way too predictable on their shot selection. One thing that makes some of the best power plays difficult to defend is when a team can generate shots from anywhere on the ice. It’s much harder to defend against two or three options instead of just one. For all the frippery moving the puck around the perimeter, it was pretty clear all the US was looking for was a shot from the point up the middle of the ice. Canada stayed disciplined and did a great job blocking those shots.
The one goal they scored on the PP, probably not coincidentally, came from Makenna Webster changing the shooting angle and taking a shot from the left circle. I was hoping that would be an epiphany and an adjustment would be made after that, but I don’t think they took another shot from the wings after that.
Some of that leads into the other big reason for the US loss...
-Taking the big picture outlook, if you had to pick a year the US was going to lose in this tournament, it was probably this one. Sandwiched between the dynastic 2000 birth year with three-time gold medalists Taylor Heise, Gracie Ostertag, and Madeline Wethington, and the very good 2002 birth year with Makenna Webster, Abbey Murphy, and Maggie Nicholson, who will all play in this tournament three times, was the 2001 birth year, which has for some time been regarded as a bit of a down year. There are of course some very good 2001-born players, but it was probably close to the lower water mark of what the US can expect in any given year.
That was particularly apparent on defense. Maggie Nicholson, Haley Winn, and Caroline Harvey clearly established themselves as the top three defensemen for the US, and all are eligible to return next year. All three were good, though I wouldn’t necessarily say great. There just wasn’t anyone behind them making a strong case for more ice time. The difference in quality of defense between the US and the veteran Canada group was pretty clear throughout the final. Winn showed a lot of promise, but asking a double-underager to run a top power play unit is a bit too big of a role.
-Finally, before the the tournament I had said that the coaching staff would be scrutinized this tournament, especially if the US string of gold medals was snapped.
Overall, I thought they did a really nice job of managing the group that they brought to Japan. The line combinations and ice time made a lot of sense. There’s nothing I can really point at and say this player was put in a really bad spot, or this player should have seen more ice time.
That said, going back to when the team was picked, I think a few of the early concerns may have only grown post-tournament. The US brought a line-up that was very tough to play against at 5-on-5. But stacking the third and fourth lines with players that play a more heavy 200-foot-style game, and using those lower lines as an opportunity to get some experience for younger players, rather than bringing more skilled offensive players meant that when the power play started to struggle, there was no Plan B to try. The defense was what it was, and I don’t think they left any better options at home. There were definitely some forwards I wouldn’t have minded seeing get a few cracks at the power play, especially early in the tournament, to see if anything could have clicked for later in the tournament.
That’s not a criminal offense by the people selecting the roster, but it is an adjustment I’d like to see considered in the future. Especially if Canada is going to clutch, grab, and check their way into making these games 50% special teams.
-Looking towards next year, the abundance of youth Team USA had this year should put them in great position for next year. The top two forwards, top three defensemen, and top goalie from this year’s team are all back, giving the US a great shot at getting back to winning gold.