CALGARY – Kim St. Pierre’s confidence is up and so is that of the Canadian women’s hockey team.
The 30-year-old goaltender from Chateauguay, Que., has been a big-game player for Canada in the past. While St. Pierre says that ability never left her, it resurfaced in a 35-save performance against the U.S. earlier this week.
Canada’s 3-1 victory Monday in Victoria was its first in four tries against the Americans, who are expected to be the host country’s tallest hurdle for the gold medal at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.
St. Pierre was in net for Canada’s 2-1 loss to the U.S. in the Hockey Canada Cup final Sept. 6 at the Olympic venue at GM Place.
She helped her team kill off all six penalties Monday. Timely stops while her team was short-handed in the first period signalled to her teammates St Pierre was on her game.
“I told her ‘that’s the best game I’ve seen you play in years,”‘ fellow-goaltender Charline Labonte said Wednesday in Calgary “She was so confident and you could tell that just gave wings to the team. You could trust she would make the saves.”
St. Pierre has been a pivotal figure in some of Canada’s biggest victories, including the 2002 Olympic gold medal win in Salt Lake City. But she played what she called the worst final of her life against the U.S. at the 2008 world championships in Harbin, China, where Canada lost 4-3.
Since then, St. Pierre has shared coveted starts against the U.S. with her friend Labonte, who was chosen to start this year’s world championship final in Hameenlinna, Finland.
Monday’s victory bumped St. Pierre’s record against the U.S. to 2-2 in her last four starts against them.
“I felt amazing. I prepared myself so well,” St. Pierre said. “When you make a few good saves at the beginning of the game, it helps so much your momentum and confidence. I really wanted to play well and it happened.
“It’s about finding a way to win every time you’re between the pipes. That’s my goal this year.”
That game came at the right time for St. Pierre as 26-year-old Labonte from Boisbriand, Que., was cleared to play Wednesday following a nine-week recuperation from a sprained ankle.
St. Pierre and Edmonton’s Shannon Szabados split games during Labonte’s convalescence, but it’s a three-way battle again for the No. 1 job in net. Canada can carry three goalies on its roster at the Olympics Games next February. All want to be the one in net in the gold-medal game.
“Playing the U.S., we don’t get to see them too often and there’s now three of us playing, so whenever you get a chance to play them, you want to make sure you’re ready and up for it,” St. Pierre said.
Canada’s next game against the U.S. is Oct. 16 in Spokane, Wash. The two sides will meet up to seven more times prior to the Olympics.
Head coach Melody Davidson planned to split Wednesday night’s game against the host Medicine Hat men’s triple-A Tigers between St. Pierre and Labonte as a way of easing Labonte back in after a long absence.
A couple of victories against men’s midget triple-A teams prior to Monday, working intensively with goalie consultant Dave Jamieson and constant video analysis has made a difference in St. Pierre’s game. She feels her positioning is better because of less extraneous movement.
“I’m a big fan of video,” she said. “You can think you’re doing something, but by watching what I was doing wrong, it was just simple things to adjust. That’s what I did in the game and it made a big difference.”
Goaltending was once the Achilles’ heel of the U.S. women’s team, but no longer. Jessie Vetter is capable of stealing games and Molly Schaus, who was in net Monday, gives the Americans a chance to win when she’s in net.
“The U.S. has really good goaltending and we need our goaltenders to match that and let the forwards and defence take over from there,” Davidson said.
“I thought Kim rose to the occasion and matched her counterparts and that’s what we need. I thought she was big in the net and made good save selection decisions. She challenged when she needed to and read the plays well.”
Labonte sprained her ankle Aug. 2 and never thought then she’d be out of action for more than two months.
“When it happened it was like ‘ah, two weeks and I’ll be back,”‘ she said. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long. I think it’s been 17 games in the stands in a row.”
Canada continues its road trip Thursday in Lethbridge to face the midget triple-A Y’s Men. The 26 women trying out for Canada’s Olympic team will play over 30 games against Alberta Midget Hockey League teams prior to the Olympics.