Hilary Knight’s golden goal lifts U.S. past Canada for world title

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Hilary Knight scored the golden goal as the U.S. beat Canada 3-2 in overtime to win its fourth straight world title and its first on home ice in Plymouth, Mich., on Friday.

“We’re usually up in Canada or over in Europe, and we get a lot of the boos,” Knight said on TSN after scoring. “So to have the cheers is a pretty good feeling.”

The U.S. now goes into the Olympic year as the clear favorite for gold in PyeongChang, boosted by its recent labor deal with USA Hockey, struck three days before this tournament began on the threat of boycott.

“We had a short training camp, but I think that negotiation created a bond that’s unbreakable among this group,” said Knight, who upon the boycott threat last month said she would have skipped the Olympics under the same circumstances.

Beware. The U.S. also won the 2005, 2009 and 2013 World titles, but Canada earned Olympic gold each of the following years, including in the compelling 2014 Olympic overtime final. Their rivalry is so close that the two nations played into overtime at five of the last seven gold-medal-games between the Olympics and worlds.

“You never want to hear another person’s anthem,” Canada coach Laura Schuler said, according to the Canadian Press.

Defenseman Kacey Bellamy scored the first two U.S. goals in her 37th career world championship game on Friday. She had scored two goals total in her previous 36 worlds games.

Goalie Nicole Hensley, in her first gold-medal-game start, hunkered down after allowing a goal on Canada’s first shot, 61 seconds in. Hensley stopped 28 of the next 29 shots after blanking Canada in group play one week ago. A full box score is here.

Knight recorded her 62nd and 63rd career worlds points, moving past Jenny Potter for second on the U.S. list behind Cammi Granato‘s 78.

Knight, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, was world tournament MVP in 2015 and 2016 and also scored a gold-medal-game winner against Canada in 2011. She reportedly considered retiring after the Sochi Olympics at age 24.

“She comes up big when you need her, and the moment is huge,” Bellamy said, according to media in Plymouth.

Bellamy has played in every Olympics and world championship since 2008, developing into a physical shot blocker rather than an offensive creator. Her work ethic was likely honed by her upbringing. Bellamy’s parents averaged 40,000 miles per year on their cars while making significant financial sacrifices for their three hockey-playing kids.

Bellamy’s goals came with the aid of the U.S.’ top line of forwards. Kendall Coyne and Brianna Decker assisted on her first-period tally. Knight and Decker had the helpers in the third period.

Hensley was a revelation in the weeklong tournament. All three U.S. goalies received a start in group play, as is tradition for the team, but Alex Rigsby was believed to be the No. 1 entering worlds. New U.S. coach Robb Stauber refused to name a favorite, though.

Rigsby stopped all 32 Canadian shots in the 2016 Worlds final, handing Canada its first shutout in a gold-medal game since 2005.

But it was Hensley who started this tournament’s opener against Canada, recording a 2-0 shutout. Rigsby got her turn three days later against Finland and gave up three goals.

Hensley got the nod in the semifinal, an 11-0 win over Germany, cementing her place in the crease Friday.

“When somebody comes in in game one and pitches a shutout against an opponent of Canada’s caliber, you don’t forget about it,” Stauber, a backup goalie on Wayne Gretzky‘s Los Angeles Kings teams of the early 1990s, said Friday, according to Sports Illustrated.

The 22-year-old Hensley is the only player on the U.S. roster of 23 who didn’t play for a club or college team this season. She graduated from Lindenwood University in Missouri last spring and, rather than going to a post-graduate team, served as an assistant coach with the program.

Before this past week, Hensley was most known for holding the NCAA record of 4,094 saves, plus stopping 90 shots in a three-overtime game as freshman (a 2-1 loss).

On Friday morning, Stauber told her personally that she would start the biggest game of her life that night. Around that time, friends from Lindenwood set out to drive 16 hours roundtrip to attend.

“You’re going to start it, you’re going to finish it,” Stauber told her, “and we’re going to be world champions at the end of the game.”

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MORE: List of NHL stars’ stances on trying to play at 2018 Olympics

NBC Olympic researcher Alex Azzi contributed to this report from Plymouth.

Paralympian Blake Leeper advances in 400m at USATF Outdoors (video)

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Paralympic medalist Blake Leeper, believed to be the first double amputee to race at a USATF Outdoor Championships, advanced out of the 400m heats in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday.

Leeper ran 45.52, third in his heat, to grab the 16th and last spot in the 400m semifinals Friday (10:34 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold).

It marked a personal best by .58 of a second for Leeper, who was racing one day after his ban for testing positive for cocaine in 2015 ended.

“I wanted to advance, but if I don’t I have won already,” Leeper said before he learned he made the semis, according to USA Track and Field. “Just being here and showing everybody what you can truly do with a disability.”

Leeper ran faster than Olympians David VerburgKyle ClemonsArman Hall and Manteo Mitchell, who were all eliminated.

It’s likely that the top five or six in Saturday’s final will make the 4x400m team for the world championships in London in August.

USATF OUTDOORS: Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview
Broadcast Schedule | Full Results

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Alysia Montano races pregnant again at USATF Outdoor Championships (video)

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U.S. Olympic 800m runner Alysia Montaño raced five months pregnant in 100-degree heat at the USATF Outdoor Championships (Summer Champions Series) in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday.

Montaño, who raced eight months pregnant at the 2014 USATF Outdoors also in Sacramento, finished last in her 800m first-round heat in 2:21.40. She was 10 seconds faster than her time three years ago.

“People were like, oh, you’re going to run faster than you did last time because you’re less pregnant,” Montaño told media in Sacramento, standing next to 2-year-old daughter Linnea. “I was like, I’m still pregnant.”

Athletes are looking for top-three finishes to qualify for the world championships in London in August. Finals are later this weekend.

USATF OUTDOORS: Men’s Preview | Women’s Preview
Broadcast Schedule | Full Results

In a Wonder Woman top, Montaño gritted her teeth on the final straightaway and raised her arms crossing the finish line.

“[In 2014] women let me know that my journey and my story had inspired them in so many different ways,” Montaño said. “I think there’s something about coming out to any venue, not really expecting to win, but just going along with the journey and seeing what comes out of it. And that’s the most beautiful part for me, being a track and field athlete, the platform that I have, I feel so responsible to be a representative of people who don’t have the same platform, don’t have the same voice that I do.

“I represent so many different people. I represent women. I represent black women. I represent pregnant women. Not everybody has the same platform that I do. I think it’s my responsibility to make sure I’m a voice and advocate for them.”

Montaño said she was inspired when she learned Gal Gadot, who played the title role in the movie “Wonder Woman,” filmed half of it while five months pregnant.

“I saw Wonder Woman, and I was like, I for sure am signing up for USA Nationals,” Montaño said. “I already was thinking I was going to do it.”

Montaño said it wasn’t easier or harder racing Thursday versus three years ago, when she had a bigger baby bump.

“The weird part about five months is you’re still growing and like shifting a lot,” she said. “So every week you have to readjust.”

Linnea has seen enough photos of her mom’s famous race in 2014 to know what was going on.

“I go, mom is going to run with your sibling in her belly,” Montaño recalled. “I did that with you, too. And [Linnea] was like, ‘Yeah, it was sticking out!'”

Montaño raced outdoors for the first time since falling in the Olympic Trials 800m final on July 4. Montaño had won the previous Olympic Trials (and finished fourth in London) and the 2015 U.S. title coming back from pregnancy.

She ran without an apparel sponsor Thursday, frustrated that Asics waited until December to say they were not interested in retaining her for 2017. Montaño said that left her no time to try and find a different sponsor, even though she was already planning to have her second child.

“You need to let an athlete know in September, October,” she said. “I’ve been calling [Asics] since September to be like, hey, I didn’t make the Olympic team, I’m 30, I’m going to have another baby.”

In the men’s 800m Thursday, two-time Olympian and 2013 World silver medalist Nick Symmonds was eliminated, 32nd-fastest of 33 runners in the first round.

Symmonds, in his final season, said he has one more race left — the Honolulu Marathon on Dec. 10.

MORE: Montaño finds little joy after Russian stripped of medals

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