The U.S. and Canadian women's national teams played their first of two matchups on Friday night at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in front of a sold-out crowd. Team Canada won by a score of 4-1. Thoughts, musings and observations from the game...
- When I walked to my seat in the area reserved for media, which is at the top of the stands, it was surreal to look down and see the stands absolutely packed. It really was standing-room only. There were people standing on the stairs on both ends of the rink and around my chair. It was so cool to see hockey fans in Pittsburgh show that kind of support. This is why they're the best.
"It was awesome," said Hilary Knight, the lone goal scorer for Team USA. "It's an incredible feeling when you can represent your country in your country. We don't get many opportunities to do that, so it's great. I just wish we had a better showing on the ice for them."
The fans weren't deterred, repeating "USA!" chants throughout the night and cheering for every goal, save and skirmish (and with this rivalry, there were a few of those). Even the Canadian players appreciated the atmosphere.
"It's been amazing since we've been here," said Canadian goalie Anne-Renee Desbiens. "To see how the crowd turned out, it's really fun to have a packed barn. Even if they cheer for the other team, you feel like they're cheering for everybody. It's okay. We like it (laughs)."
- It was also surreal to get the chance to watch these teams live. I know someone I was really looking forward to watching live was Marie-Philip Poulin, the captain of Team Canada. She has been referred to as the Sidney Crosby of women's hockey and is arguably the best player in the world. She did not disappoint.
In the first period, she gave teammate Victoria Bach a sweet setup for a tap-in to open the scoring for Team Canada. In the second period, Poulin scored a sick shorthanded breakaway goal, deking to her backhand and going top shelf to give her team a 3-1 lead.
The crowd definitely ooh-ed and ahh-ed after that one, with Penguins forward Jared McCann lifting his arms in celebration from his seat in the management booth. Poulin is just an absolute legend, and I'm going to have a more in-depth piece about her this weekend.
- Bach had herself a night as well, scoring twice to finish as the game's No. 1 star.
"Just for me, being a younger player, getting a game like that under my belt is pretty incredible," she said.
Bach is just 23 years old and is part of a youth movement on Team Canada - as is 19-year-old Sarah Fillier, who rounded out the scoring.
"Having a younger team, we didn't really know what to expect," Desbiens said. "But we saw how fast those younger players are and how they can help our program, so it was definitely fun and encouraging to see."
- I think an important takeaway from this week is that another way to support these women is to watch them play for their respective college teams, especially the Canadian players. For example, Bach and Poulin actually played together at Boston University.
While they have both since graduated, Canada's roster boasts some fanastic current college players, like Fillier - who was named the National Rookie of the Year last season at Princeton University - and 22-year-old Loren Gabel, who won the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award last year as the best player in college hockey after scoring 40 goals in 38 games for Clarkson.
- For many of the players, this marked their first game action since Team USA defeated Canada to win gold at the 2019 World Championship back in April. And the Americans got off to an especially slow start, with Hilary Knight - the lone goal scorer - calling it "flat."
"It definitely wasn't our style of hockey that we're used to putting on the ice for the fans to see," she said. "But we're going to change that come Sunday."
Ideally, Team USA's style is to play "Kendall Coyne fast," as forward Kelly Pannek told me the other day, referring to their captain who is one of the fastest players in the world, male and female, as evidenced by her performance at the 2018 NHL All-Star Skills competition.
"Speed with the puck and without the puck," Pannek continued. "When people think speed, they think of Kendall Coyne. But it's also the speed of your thought and and how fast you can move the puck. Kendall is very fast, but we can still move the puck faster than Kendall. I think that's the biggest thing, just playing at an extremely high pace."
As she was telling me this, I couldn't help but smile, as I've heard Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan say he wants his team to play that same way on numerous occasions. He always talks about how playing fast isn't just about foot speed. I thought it was cool to hear that Team USA has a similar mindset.
- Overall, while the U.S. players weren't happy with the result, they did feel they got better as the game went on. There's certainly a lot to build on, and they're looking forward to the rematch on Sunday at 1 p.m.