Rivalry Series Lives Up to Its Name
On Tuesday night, Budweiser Gardens saw a sold out crowd filling its 9,100 seat capacity to host a unique event that brought the best of women’s hockey to the world stage outside of an Olympic year.
The Canadian and American senior national teams took to the ice in the first matchup of the inaugural game of the Rivalry Series, a showdown between the two powerhouses of women’s hockey, bringing such names as London’s own Katelyn Gosling, two time Olympic medalist Natalie Spooner, three time Olympic medalist Hilary Knight, and the acclaimed Kendall Coyne Schofield fresh out of her first NBCSN broadcast and NHL All Star Skills Competition fame to the ice.
The Series features three games in a five day span, with stops in London, Toronto, and finishing in Detroit on February 17th. It is the first of its kind to pit the top female talent from the United States and Canada in a non-Olympic performance.
The building was buzzing with excitement as fans from all over the province and beyond came together to cheer on the hockey legends, with support from dozens of women’s hockey teams of various age groups joining hockey fans of diverse backgrounds in celebrating this showcase of international talent.
With the first puck drop delivering early chants of “Go Canada Go!”, it was evident that the crowd was there to bolster their home country while they donned a sea of red, black, and white jerseys in the stands. Having the fans behind them, Canada took the early charge in the offensive zone, generating a couple quick shots on net to begin the frame and giving USA goaltender Alex Rigsby a feel for the puck immediately.
Matching the efforts of the red and black, Brianna Decker, who was also active in the All Star Skills Competition, took the puck tight into the net of Emerance Maschmeyer for a big opportunity to bring her team up one early, but was quickly extinguished by the glove of the Alberta native.
Taking the title of “Rivalry Series” to heart, the two teams demonstrated strong physicality as soon as they look to the ice, throwing in hip checks, shoving, and maximizing tough play along the boards, exhibiting expert physical craft in a sport that does not allow body checking in legal play.
A quick rush to the American net and an ensuing crash into Rigsby put Canada down a player 9:10 into the game as Sarah Nurse headed to the box for goaltender interference and a small tussle around the crease was dissipated by the officials.
Despite having a couple close opportunities and one virtually wide open net available for the puck, Canada managed to thwart the American power play and keep the score even at 0.
With both teams fired up against their traditional nemesis and high physicality factored into play, tensions ran high and after a large full line scuffle in front of the Canadian net, both Halli Krzyzaniak and Megan Bozek saw box time for roughing after pulling each other down to ice level and grappling in front of the Canadian crease.
Flow and speed were a large factor in the first, seeing even offensive end play and equal chances for each team to put themselves up, and at the end of the first will the score at nil, the Canadians lead the shot count 8-7.
Canada dominated the first couple shifts of the second period, with the highly decorated Marie-Philip Poulin taking a quick shot from right in front of the blue paint that was smothered by Rigsby, who continued to appear solid. A roaring home crowd continued to make their considerable presence known as they cheered on each moment of Canadian success.
Team USA came back into the offensive in a flash, putting forward three tic-tac-toe goal opportunities that never found the back end of the Canadian goal.
Intensity continued to build as another net tussle brought the two lines into Rigsby’s crease, following a shot by Jillian Saulnier that took down a blue and white jersey in an attempt to find mesh. Shots from both ends continued to be fired, but each time they found the goaltender’s crest and was simply covered up, making the job of the netminders appear effortless.
Maintaining the score at an even zero until the last minute and forty seconds into the second, Hilary Knight then put her team on the scoreboard first with a skillful goal that completely evaded Maschmeyer. An initial shot from the left point tied her up to her far post and as the puck rebounded and bounced up into the air, landing in front of a wide-open Knight, she rocketted the puck into the right side of the net as Maschmeyer was tied up near her own player on the other side, not standing a chance.
“We had a lot of girls skating in front of the net...all the work was done on the front end” noted Knight, crediting her teammates for her success with the first goal.
As the framed closed with a 1-0 lead for Team USA, both sides continued to speed through and utilize all areas of the ice with the skill and ease that women’s hockey is renowned for, giving the crowd plenty of moments to roar in excitement, despite becoming temporarily damped by the visiting team’s goal. The shot count stood at 22-17 for Canada.
Team Canada continued their trend of leading the period with strength, showing up for a couple of narrow shot attempts from in tight and from the point, varying the angles facing Rigsby but not proving challenging enough to shake her perfect performance.
Laura Stacey took a two minute tripping call 2:43 into the third to put her home team on the penalty kill, but after Amanda Kessel received a slashing minor at 4:00, Canada was left with a shortened powerplay opportunity once Stacey left the box. Leading to three fantastic openings right in close to Rigsby and her crease, the home team was able to generate any points on the PP as the defensive Americans threw sticks and bodies in front of shots, thwarting the red and black.
One of the highlights of the period saw Canada’s Spooner and USA’s Coyne Schofield chasing a loose puck towards centre ice, as the crowd held its breath to watch the NHL All Star second fastest skater take on the Canadian veteran in a one-on-one skate race. Managing to just inch past Coyne Schofield, Spooner managed to edge her opponent off of the puck and took it back into the American zone to the sounds of a roaring home crowd filled with excitement.
Canada began to struggle just under halfway into the last period, unable to break out of their own zone as USA was consistently able to strip players of the puck, stop momentum at the half boards, or bully the red and black off of the play to maintain possession and generate shot opportunities for three shifts in the Canadian zone.
With five minutes left in the game and still down by one, Canada lead the shot count 30-21 and turned the match around to dominate offensive play and station players closer to the net to pick up rebounds and tip rogue pucks. At this turnaround point Head Coach Perry Pearn thought his team “controlled the play” and took advantage of opportunities.
Reacting to this new pressure, Team USA called a timeout with 4:35 left in the first installment of the Rivalry Series, regrouping the team to put out fresh legs and minds to hold on to their one goal lead.
As play resumed Coach Pearn decided to keep his goaltender in net and make the push with his key offensive players using even strength 5-on-5 play. Calling a timeout of his own with 33.9 seconds remaining, Maschmeyer remained active on the ice and finished off the game in her blue paint.
To the thrill of the crowd, Canada made a massive last attempt at the net with five seconds left on the clock as sticks and bodies piled into the away crease in an effort to push a loose puck past the goal line, but was met with no success.
The matchup ended with Team USA continuing their recent historical success over the Canadian team, taking the score 1-0 but trailing the shot count 33-21.
Coach Pearn noted that they were “a little bit rusty” but was impressed with the improvement he is seeing in his team after the 4 Nations Cup in November of last year, and is confident in his players and their abilities. “From an entertainment standpoint, it was a pretty good hockey game,” said Pearn.
With the recent surge of media attention and popularity of women’s hockey, especially following the NHL All Star Skills Competition, more hockey fans are turning their attention to the women’s teams and is something that was not lost on both coaches and players, but instead was vehemently supported.
Poulin noted that having a crowd that is “so loud that you can’t even hear your coach” is a fantastic addition to the atmosphere and really shows the support of women’s hockey.
“The skill, the speed, it’s all there…” noted USA Head Coach Bob Corkum. His own career has seen him play 15 years in the NHL and assistant coach the New York Islanders for three years in his last position, and is experiencing the women’s side for the first time through this Rivalry Series. “I immediately fell in love with [women’s hockey]...they are absolute sponges and they want to learn,” said Corkum.
Knight was excited to see such a large turnout for the game, despite the crowd being mostly filled with Canadian fans, but mentioned that “we need to keep having these opportunities to increase the visibility of our sport.” Despite being familiar with, and in some instances teammates with, a handful of players from the opposite team she thinks its the best hockey they get to play all year with a passionate rivalry fueling their compete.
On February 14th the two teams will face each other again on Canadian soil in Toronto at 7 pm ET at Scotiabank Arena.