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