U.S. women didn't bend under the pressure, they flourished

The U.S. women's team won its fourth straight world title in 2017, again beating rival Canada. Will it enjoy similar success at the Olympics? Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- The U.S. women's national team knows a fundamental rule of hockey is the game never lets you write the script. Hockey just doesn't. And yet, what the American players told each other Friday as they headed to overtime against Canada smacked of the same predestination that followed them in every showdown they played here: They were not going to lose this world championship game.

Not after coming this far. Not after making it through the boycott they called on March 15, and everything else that followed in the next three weeks. Not with the memory of losing back-to-back games against Canada in December by blowing leads, same as they had done in their gold-medal game against Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, same as they'd done again on this night.

American forward Hilary Knight felt so spent after that Olympic overtime loss in Russia, she actually quit hockey for months. But she couldn't stay away.

Friday night at USA Hockey Arena, it was Knight flying down the ice in overtime of this breathtaking final at the 2017 IIHF World Championships with the standing-room only crowd shrieking as she went. She started a two-on-one rush by blocking a slap shot from Canadian defenseman Halli Krzyzaniak just inside the U.S. blue line.

Knight took off on a give-and-go with linemate Kendall Coyne that ended with Knight snapping off a shot that rattled just inside the upper left corner of the net, high over Canadian goaltender Shannon Szabados' right shoulder, to give the U.S. a sensational 3-2 win just over 10 minutes into the extra session.

It was the Americans' seventh world title in eight years, and it put a perfect capstone on an unprecedented journey that they never believed would end any other way.

"Before overtime we told each other, 'We got this' ... Now, it's two storybook endings for us," Knight said after her winning goal brought the rest of the U.S. team spilling over the boards and skating over to mob her as they sent their sticks and gloves pinwheeling into the air.

"Between the third period and overtime, I just told her 'F---ing rip it,'" Coyne, the littlest player on the U.S. squad, said with a laugh. "And she f---ing ripped it, all right. When you have the best player in the world next to you, you give her the puck."

In the space of the past three weeks, the U.S. women have gone from an oft-overlooked jewel of a team that labored in obscurity to an international story that just keeps getting better. Their willingness to fight for equitable compensation and better treatment from USA Hockey had everyone from U.S. Senators and union leaders, men's rec teams and girls' youth players, adopting their #BeBoldForChange slogan, cheering them on and following their saga. "We inspired people," Knight said.

When the American women called their surprise boycott on March 15 and told USA Hockey they wouldn't play without a new contract that covered all four years of each Olympic cycle, not just the six-month residency program where they were paid $6,000 apiece, they were severely tested. USA Hockey threatened to send a replacement team, only to find the players' boasts that no one would cross the line were exactly right. The team had an astonishing coalition of support.

After plenty of fits and starts that included ignoring a few deadlines USA Hockey set, the team and federation finally reached a settlement on March 29, which left the U.S. women only 48 hours together to prepare for the tournament.

The American women knew they'd have to rip off five wins in eight days -- two of them against Canada -- to win a fourth straight world title. On Friday, many of the players finally conceded for the first time that they did indeed feel "we had something to prove," as Coyne said.

"We knew a lot of eyes were on us, and there was pressure," she added.

And yet, rather than bend under it, they flourished. One U.S. team veteran after another kept saying the same thing once they got to Michigan and they began to play.

"I don't think we've ever played better as a team. Ever," assistant captain Monique Lamoureux-Morando insisted. And so did many other players.

But how could that be?

"Because we've never been closer as a team," captain Meghan Duggan answered.

That was true. But that wasn't all that became clear here about this team.

It would undersell the U.S. players to say what they accomplished in this tournament was due to some momentary rush of emotion over their contract victory, potent and unifying as that was. No, the American team was able to do this because of the way they've always prepared when no one was looking.

It wasn't some burst of adrenaline or fluky confluence of opportunity and luck that lifted their play to the heights they hit here.

This is who they are.

The fact that this team could show up and play at this breathtaking level of skill and precision, speed and determination, just speaks to the professionalism they have always brought to their work. For years.

The irony is, one of the players' complaints during their contract talks -- their gripe that they typically play only about nine games together in non-Olympic years like this one, then scatter back to their numerous hometowns and side jobs to train as best they can -- probably left the U.S. team uniquely prepared to roll into this tournament and immediately click the way they did despite so little time together.

"I was never worried about them. Not once," said U.S. coach Robb Stauber, who almost surely wrapped up the Olympic team job with this win. "We believed in our players. We knew they'd come ready."

Then, Stauber smiled a little and added in his next breath that, as gratifying as this win was, he has a feeling this group is already looking ahead.

"They deserve to celebrate this, and they will," Stauber said. "But I think everyone that knows this team knows there's other things churning in the back of their minds as well."

He was referring to this team's chase of a gold medal in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games. The U.S. has won gold only once, back in 1998. There are players on this team who have finished second to Canada in the past two Olympics. And they've had enough of that, too.

"We're going to enjoy this tonight," Knight said. "And then it's back to work."

The Olympics are the last big thing hanging out there for this group to win. And anything can happen in the coming 10 months. But given what the American women did these past three weeks, on and off the ice, don't bet against them.