What’s that old adage? When one door closes, another opens?
Well, Team USA hopes the axiom applies to streaks, too. This past August, the Americans saw their run of five straight World Championship victories come to an end, but the Beijing Games bring with them the opportunity for the Americans to capture consecutive Olympic golds for the first time in program history.
Tasked with making that a reality will be bench boss Joel Johnson and a roster featuring several fresh faces along with a host of the veteran staples who were there for the win in Pyeongchang. However, the club Johnson is leading into the 2022 Olympics hasn’t exactly been out-and-out dominant, particularly not against Canada. In fact, this U.S. outfit has had some trouble getting past its rival, dropping four consecutive games across the World Championship and the start of the Rivalry Series.
But any concern that Canada had the Americans’ number was alleviated with back-to-back November wins that tied the exhibition series at two games each at the time – though Canada went on to win the final two games. That was enough to put the brakes on any notion the balance of power between the game’s top two nations had firmly swung back in Canada’s favor – and a U.S. victory in Beijing would snuff that chatter out altogether.
Though the nature of a short tournament can mean the numbers don’t always bear it out, the American attack continues to run through the three-headed monster of Hilary Knight, Brianna Decker and captain Kendall Coyne Schofield. For her part, Knight is Team USA’s all-time leading scorer at the worlds, while Decker and Coyne Schofield rank third and seventh. At the Olympics, Knight again leads the way at fifth all-time, with her veteran compatriots tied for 15th. There’s no reason to believe the trio is ready to give up their spots as the offensive leaders, either. At the 2021 worlds, they notched a combined eight goals and 16 points in seven games, and they continued to dot the scoresheet in the Rivalry Series.
Beyond the offensive mainstays, one tantalizing addition – or, rather, returnee – is Alex Carpenter. One of the most gifted goal-scorers in NCAA history, ranking fifth all-time with 133 goals across four seasons at Boston College, Carpenter was conspicuously absent from the 2018 Olympic team despite consistently performing on the world stage. Back in the mix at the 2021 worlds, Carpenter showed out, too. Her five goals in seven games led the way for the Americans.
The addition of more goal-scoring prowess assuages arguably the biggest concern for the Americans, too, as a wealth of pure scoring punch might be the one thing the roster truly lacks. Of course, the roster is as deep as always given the talent pool – and the likes of Amanda Kessel and Dani Cameranesi will be expected to light the lamp in Beijing – but the game-breaking talent remains primarily focused on the big three of Knight, Decker and Coyne Schofield. As that trio goes, it is likely so, too, will go the American attack.
All Lee Stecklein has ever done is win. She has golds at the under-18s, World Championship and Olympics. She has three NCAA titles and an Isobel Cup. And at the 2021 worlds, Stecklein added to her ever-growing resume when she led blueliners in scoring en route to all-star team and best-defender honors. This all to say Stecklein is quickly becoming to the American defense corps what the offensive trio has long been to the attack. It is no stretch to suggest she could emerge as the biggest standout in Beijing.
Beyond Stecklein, the blueline is youthful. Cayla Barnes and Caroline Harvey, in particular, might be the most intriguing rearguards at the entire tournament. Though the attack has a veteran bent, especially at the top end, the two youngsters impressed during their minutes throughout the worlds and pre-Olympic exhibitions. If there is any torch-passing to be had at the Games, it will come from Barnes and Harvey absorbing minutes from their more experienced counterparts.
There will be some potential handwringing over the defensive showing at the 2021 worlds. Team USA allowed 10 goals against, the most at any tournament since the 2015 worlds and double what the squad allowed at the 2019 competition. In fact, in the four prior best-on-best competitions combined, Team USA had only allowed 17 goals. It will be equally concerning that all but one of those markers came during full-strength play. But it is more likely the performance was an exception and not the rule. And even if the opposition can poke holes in the American defense at 5-on-5, the U.S. will undoubtedly benefit from a penalty kill that was on fire heading into the tournament. They enjoyed a remarkable 95-percent success rate shorthanded at the worlds, and that level of defensive buy-in when down a skater suggests the U.S. should be able to iron out any deficiencies at 5-on-5.
Given her gold-medal winning performance in Pyeongchang, which included an ice-in-her-veins showing during the winner-take-all shootout, Maddie Rooney seemed destined to dominate the crease for the Americans for the foreseeable future. But it hasn’t been the smoothest sailing for the netminder in the time since. While back with the national team at the 2019 worlds, she ceded the crease to Alex Cavallini, who backstopped Team USA to gold. Then, as Rooney again sought to stake her claim to the No. 1 job, she sustained an injury that kept her out of the 2021 worlds, where Nicole Hensley, not Cavallini, was the goalie of choice throughout the medal round.
So the Americans enter the Olympics with no clear-cut starter. Not one of the Rooney-Cavallini-Hensley trio has wrested the job from the others, and all three saw action in the Rivalry Series. The good news is that it is less a matter of poor play than it is one of equally stellar performances. In all likelihood, Johnson and Co. will be tasked with making a gut decision around the time the puck is dropped in Beijing. Luckily for Team USA, it will be difficult to go wrong with any of the three.
This preview appeared in The Hockey News' Olympic Preview issue.