The United States women's Olympic hockey team earned a huge victory over a very good Finnish team Thursday morning to lead off the defense of their title from PyeongChang. Unfortunately, the win came at a massive cost.
In the first period of the Americans' tilt against Finland, U.S. forward Brianna Decker — widely considered one of the top women's hockey players in the world — suffered an ugly lower-body injury that paused the game for several minutes. Decker and Finnish defender Ronja Savolainen got tangled up and fell to the ice awkwardly. Decker had to be stretchered off the ice and was later seen at Wukesong Sports Centre wearing a walking boot with crutches.
USA Hockey confirmed Thursday morning that Decker will miss the remainder of the Olympics due to the injury.
"It was sickening," said U.S. forward Amanda Kessel. "She is one of the toughest players I have ever played with. She is not staying down on the ice and not crying if it was not bad. We want to win for her."
With Decker out of commission for the rest of the Games, the U.S. will need just about all of its players to step up to help fill the void. Alex Carpenter already put together a statement performance in the 5-2 victory over Finland by netting a pair of goals, but a few others will need to follow Carpenter's lead in order for the U.S. to successfully defend their gold from 2018.
Hannah Brandt lined up as the Americans' No. 1 center against the Finns on Thursday and played well, winning 12 of her 19 draws in 18:12 of ice time. She didn't manage to contribute on the scoresheet, but she's also not considered an elite scorer down the middle of the ice. Brandt plays a strong two-way game that doesn't always show up on the stat sheet, but she's extremely valuable in shorthanded situations and excels in the faceoff circle.
As valuable as her 200-foot play is, though, the U.S. could benefit greatly from an added pinch of offense from the 28-year-old Minnesota native with Decker out of the lineup. Brandt wasn't much of an offensive dynamo in PyeongChang (she only logged two points in five games), but she was a terror during her college days at the University of Minnesota, having posted 115 goals and 285 total points in 158 collegiate games.
Decker is irreplaceable, but if Brandt can recapture the scoring touch she so often exhibited as a Golden Gopher, the U.S. won't skip a beat offensively even without one of its top stars.
Abby Roque was a dominant player in her four years at the University of Wisconsin, and there's no reason to assume she can't make a significant impact for the U.S. in these Olympics. She put together an impressive outing in her Olympic debut against the Finns on Thursday, generating several quality scoring chances and finishing the contest with one of the better passes you'll see throughout the tournament on Carpenter's second goal of the game.
At Wisconsin, Roque posted 56 goals and 170 total points in 155 games as a Badger. She was also named the Bob Allen Women’s Hockey Player of the Year in 2020 — an award given annually by USA Hockey to the best American-born women's hockey athlete. Decker, Hilary Knight and former U.S. captain Meghan Duggan were recipients of the award as well.
Knight believes Roque has the potential to be the best women's hockey player in the world. And after Roque's stellar Olympic debut against the Finns, it's easy to see why she has such high praise for the 24-year-old.
And speaking of Knight...
Hilary Knight is the face of women's hockey in the United States, and she's become one of the unquestioned leaders in the U.S. locker room. The four-time Olympian is clearly no stranger to stepping up in big situations. After all, the Americans probably wouldn't have won gold in PyeongChang without Knight's timely scoring.
With Decker missing in action, Knight will need to not only continue being the heartbeat of this U.S. squad, but she'll also need to up her game a bit offensively in order to make up for the lost production from Decker. Luckily, that's not something she should have any difficulty doing.
The 32-year-old is considered one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of women's hockey. She broke U.S. hockey legend Cammi Granato's World Championship scoring record last August, and it won't be long before she passes Granato on the all-time points list at the Olympics as well.
Moments like these are when Knight plays her best, and the U.S. will need her to be at the top of her game for the remainder of this tournament to successfully defend the title from PyeongChang.