The stakes of any gold medal game are high enough as it is. But for the United States’ core group of Abbey Murphy, Makenna Webster, and Maggie Nicholson, all veterans playing in their third World U18 Tournament for the United States, the stakes, arguably, were even higher. After winning a shootout thriller against Canada in a de facto gold medal game in 2018, and losing an overtime heartbreaker in 2019 to Canada in the gold medal game, Monday’s championship game against Canada had the feel of a tiebreaker that would define their legacy. As they have so many times before for Team USA, they once again delivered. They helped produce a third overtime classic against Canada, and played a key role in leading the United States to a dramatic 2-1 overtime victory to age out of the U18s with a pair of gold medals.
The United States struck first in the first period. Abbey Murphy, who sat in the penalty box as Canada scored the overtime game-winning goal in last year’s tournament, and who had been largely snakebit for the entirety of this tournament, finally broke through at the most critical of moments. Murphy just missed scoring the first goal of the game on the United States’ first power play opportunity of the game. But as that penalty expired, Murphy broke into the Canada zone and drew a second power play for the United States. This time, she would capitalize. Makenna Webster made a terrific second-effort play to knock a puck away from a Canadian defender and into the slot, right onto the stick of Murphy. Murphy’s wrist shot beat Canadian goalie Eve Gascon and the US had an early 1-0 lead.
The United States would cling to that lead through a shaky second period and into the third period before Canada would answer back with a power play goal of their own. Ann-Frederik Naud won a puck in the corner off a face-off in the US zone, and after attacking from behind the US net to no avail throughout the game, finally connected with Sarah Paul for the game-tying goal.
The United States would survive until overtime, but just barely. Lacey Eden, perhaps the best US player throughout the tournament, was whistled for tripping penalties in the offensive zone twice in the final three minutes of regulation. But after losing last year’s tournament on a questionable penalty, this time, the US penalty kill came through, and the game extended deep into the overtime period.
The 3-on-3 overtime produced some thrilling hockey. Both Eve Gascon and US goalie Skylar Vetter made huge, game-saving stops, while the US saw the best of their chances go ringing off the goal post.
Finally, the overtime produced it’s hero in the unlikeliest of ways. Maggie Nicholson stole a puck at the US blue line, sending the defensemen, more known for her steady defensive play and booming slap shot from the point, on a rare breakaway. Sensing that only teammate Kiara Zanon was with her, Nicholson faked to her backhand, drawing Gascon across the crease, and left the puck for Zanon to slam into the vacant net on the doorstep to win the gold.
The gold medal is the eighth in 13 tournaments for the United States, and ends a one-year absence from the top of women’s junior hockey. The United States has now won five of the past six tournaments.
Notes and Thoughts:
-Woooooooooooooooooooooo. That was a fun hockey game.
-Thank God they won. Everyone knows the old journalism maxim about the dread of hitting Ctrl + A and backspace on a story made obsolete by a late twist. For me, there’s no greater thrill than Ctrl + A backspacing my pages and pages of bitter recriminations because somehow, it all worked out in the end. There were some roster decisions that were baffling, or more accurately, easily explainable for all the wrong reasons, made even worse by how those players were used in the tournament. But......they found a way to win. I’ll keep my rant about how college coaches shouldn’t be coaching these teams in my back pocket for another day.
-One thing that I think you have to give Maura Crowell a ton of credit for is that it took a lot of guts for the US to stay with all four lines and all eight defensemen for as long as they did. It certainly helped that the US was playing with the lead for a good chunk of regulation, but it was only a one goal lead and they stuck with it for a good deal of the third period when the game was tied as well. Ultimately, I think that might have made the difference when the US still had relatively fresh legs when they cut down to about nine skaters in the overtime period.
-The 3-on-3 overtime really played into the US strengths. They were able to rotate through Murphy, Webster, Eden, and Zanon at forward and Nicholson, Winn, Guilday, Harvey, and Lobdell on defense. I think Canada had the advantage when it was 20 skaters vs. 20 skaters, but the top-9 for the US was slightly better than Canada’s best however many, especially when it came to a more possession-based game like the OT was.
It’s also worth noting that the US primarily skated two D and one forward in the 3-on-3, while Canada was playing with two forwards and one defensemen. There are pros and cons to both, but you can see one of the big downsides when a Canadian forward got caught in an awkward spot on the ice, which led to the game-winning goal.
Finally, I saw a few people ask how much teams even practice 3-on-3. It’s something Team USA does put some focus on. Every game at their Select Camp this summer ended with a 5-minute 3-on-3 OT period to help get players acclimated. I’m sure Canada puts in work on it too, but it’s cool to see it come together for the United States in the biggest possible spot.
-The US blue line as a whole was fantastic in this game, but extra special mention goes to Nicholson, Guilday, and Harvey who put in serious work on the left side. Because of the way Canada was set up to attack, they were under pressure all game from Anne Cherkowski and Ann-Frederik Naud driving hard down the right wing and trying to attack from behind the net, and they were flawless.
They made life pretty easy for Skylar Vetter in regulation, and Vetter was solid controlling the puck and not making situations any more dangerous. There were times over the past 12 months when it looked like Vetter might not be the right choice in goal for this team, but did she ever answer the call in overtime when she made a couple huge saves.
-Maggie Nicholson’s play to set up the game-winning goal is one for the ages. People think a 2-on-0 should be an easy goal, but to execute a pass like that, in that situation, is no small thing. Beautiful play in the biggest of moments.
-I loved moving this tournament up a week to coincide with the World Juniors. It would have helped if the US men had provided a better lead-in by managing to put the puck in the net instead of spending 60 minutes worried about “puck management”, but it really helps the exposure playing at a time when people are maximally invested in youth international hockey.
The high number I saw for viewers watching the stream of the game was just over 10,000, which I believe is a little more than double what the 2018 US-Canada semifinal drew(I never saw a number for last year, but I imagine it was small, given the game started at like 3:30am in North America). There’s potential for even more if there was a better job promoting the tournament during the World Juniors.
This is an awesome tournament that has produced some fantastic games in recent years. Hopefully this serves as a transitional moment and it becomes a much bigger deal. Because games like that deserve it.
-One of the nice things about stocking away one more gold medal is that things look kind of grim for the US heading into next years tournament. It’s still 12 months out so things can change, but right now, next year looks like it could be one of the weakest US teams in recent memory. Outside of Haley Winn on defense and Skylar Vetter in net, the US got almost nothing outside of the ‘02 age group that ages out. Kirsten Simms and Danielle Burgen were ‘04s that showed flashes of promise, but they certainly didn’t make the impact that Murphy and Webster did on this tournament three years ago. There are going to be a lot of opportunities for players to step into big roles on next year’s team.