Nicole Hensley

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U.S., Canada set up Four Nations Cup final showdown

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WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. (AP) — The United States has earned yet another game against Canada, and the Americans really like how they’re playing right now.

Kacey Bellamy scored on a power-play at 4:23 of the first period and the United States beat Sweden 5-0 on Friday night to reach the championship of the Four Nations Cup.

The Americans will play Canada on Sunday looking for their eighth overall title in this tournament and third straight. So far this fall, the United States has won two of the first three games against its biggest rivals in women’s hockey, including a 4-2 win Wednesday night in the round-robin portion of this event.

“We know who they are and they know who we are, and it’s very likely another real good hockey game,” U.S. coach Robb Stauber said about playing Canada for the fourth time as part of their pre-Olympic exhibition tour.

The U.S. squad has won three games in four nights scoring 17 goals and allowing only four.

“Obviously, it’s always great to win a game and win three in a row is the ultimate goal, but I’m just happy with the way we’re playing,” U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said. “I think all the games have been different, a lot of special teams. We’ve done a great job managing our energy, managing our intensity, the way that we want to play. Sticking to dictating the game on our end and just happy with where we’re at right now.”

Kendall Coyne scored two goals in the second. Hannah Brandt had a goal and an assist, and Gigi Marvin had a goal.

This was the 18th game between the United States and Sweden in this event, and the Americans remain undefeated with their seventh shutout in the last nine games between the teams.

They jumped on Sweden’s first penalty when Olivia Carlsson went to the box for high-sticking, needing just 29 seconds to score.

Bellamy skated across the slot in front of the crease and pounced on a rebound of Hilary Knight‘s shot to beat goalie Sara Grahn with a backhander.

Sweden killed off its other two penalties of the period, and goalie Nicole Hensley made a nice stop on a short-handed breakaway attempt by Lisa Johansson at 18:18 of the first. That may have been the biggest of the nine shots Hensley faced.

“It’s critical,” Stauber said. “Anytime a game’s 1-nothing, that’s a game-changing save, and she came up big and had some other real good saves. And that’s not easy on a given night when you only face nine shots on goal. That’s not easy to stay in something like that. So she was mentally focused … She didn’t give any ground.”

Coyne made it 2-0 with her second goal in three games in this tournament 1:35 into the second. Then Coyne made it 3-0 at 4:56, and Brandt scored from the slot midway through the second.

Canada beat Finland 4-0 to advance to the title game. Finland took three of the first four shots, but Brianne Jenner scored on the power play at 13:27 of the 1st for a lead the Canadians never lost.

Canada went 2 of 6 with the advantage while killing all seven penalties. Marie-Philip Poulin had a goal and an assist, and Meghan Agosta added two assists.

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A path to USA Hockey through gas stations, concussions, 90-save epic

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Goalie Nicole Hensley did not think the Olympics were possible.

Not while growing up in Colorado, which has never produced a female Olympic hockey player.

Not when she started her freshman season opener for little Lindenwood University. Ohio State shelled her with 64 shots in Columbus. She saved 60 in a 4-0 defeat. Lindenwood lost Hensley’s next seven starts, too.

But now, as the U.S. plays its pre-Olympic tournament this week, Hensley is all but assured of making the 23-woman roster for PyeongChang expected to be named in about two months.

She got the start in both games against rival Canada at the world championship tournament last spring, winning each time.

Four weeks later, Hensley was called into a meeting with U.S. head coach Robb Stauber, assistant Brett Strot and general manager Reagan Carey.

You made the national team, they told her. The Olympics are in nine months.

“I was practically in tears,” Hensley, 23, said. “It’s hard to remember anything else. I just couldn’t believe it, I guess.”

Hensley fell in love with the sport as a girl in Lakewood, a city seven miles southwest of Denver. How could she not. The hometown Avalanche made the NHL playoffs every season from when Hensley was 1 until she was 10.

“Her entire room was completely decked out in Avalanche memorabilia,” mom Linda said. “Hockey sticks, posters, anything that they sold at the Pepsi Center she had.”

She adored Joe Sakic.

“We were on vacation on the Outer Banks the year they won the Stanley Cup,” in 2001, Linda said. “The beach is right there, but we had to come in and watch every game.”

Hensley’s parents drove her and little sister Brittany (not much of a hockey fan, now on the Colorado State rodeo team) around the metropolitan area to local Conoco gas stations, where players and coaches signed autographs.

“We went to every single one of those signings,” Linda said.

Sakic once visited her local rink.

“She got an autograph on a crumpled piece of paper that she still has,” Linda said. “When he retired we had some friends of friends who knew him. They had put out a commemorative hockey stick with all his lifetime stats, so he autographed that stick for her.”

Hensley started out as a skater. She became a goalie to continue playing with boys when they started checking at pee-wee ages of 11 and 12.

By her last years of high school, Hensley traveled with the Colorado Select girls club team. Her senior season ended with a concussion after another skater ran into her.

“I actually blacked out,” Hensley said. “I guess I stood up and fell back down, but I don’t remember doing that.”

“When we got home and to our doctor a few days later, she still wasn’t remembering things properly and wasn’t counting properly,” Linda said.

It was not significant enough to question Hensley’s decision to accept her only hockey scholarship offer to Lindenwood. Symptoms cleared after two or three weeks.

Hensley joined a Lindenwood team that had gone 8-21 the previous season, its first as an NCAA program. The returning No. 1 goalie took a shot off her clavicle two or three weeks before the season opener.

So coaches decided Hensley would open her freshman year in net at Ohio State, a school with five times the enrollment of Lindenwood’s 11,000 or so.

“The instant look on her face was oh crap,” Lindenwood goalie coach Cory Whitaker said. “Then, right after that, it was, this is my chance.

“From that point on, you knew that she was going to do anything possible to not give up that starting position.”

Hensley was praised for only giving up four goals as Lindenwood was outshot 64-19. There would be plenty more games like it during a freshman campaign that included another concussion and a few thousand bus miles, including an 18-hour ride to Bemidji State in Minnesota.

Then there’s the conference tournament game that everyone talks about.

Robert Morris University pelted Hensley with 92 shots over three regulation periods and three overtimes. Hensley stopped 90 of them, shattering the NCAA Division I single-game record by 12 saves, but Lindenwood lost 2-1.

A Robert Morris assistant saved the puck and gave it to Lindenwood.

“That’s what started to spark interest, I think people started to say maybe this kid is capable of something more,” said Hensley, who felt fine after that game — until she tried to roll out of bed the next morning.

USA Hockey invited Hensley to a camp for the nation’s top development goalies after her freshman and sophomore seasons.

“I would have put myself maybe middle of the pack for the 12 that were there,” she said. “I never really saw myself standing out or anything like that.”

After her sophomore year, Carey called Hensley to invite her to a more select camp of six to nine goalies. Then, Hensley made the world championship team as the third and final goalie — and third-youngest player on the roster — following her senior year in 2016.

But it wasn’t until later in 2016 at an August camp when Hensley felt like an Olympic prospect.

“Up until that time, I had been somewhat intimidated to even be on the ice with people like Hilary KnightBrianna Decker and Meghan Duggan,” Hensley said, naming star forwards on the 2014 Olympic silver-medal team. “At that camp, I just started to realize I had the ability to play with them and that [the Olympics] could be a possibility.”

Rather than join a club team after graduating in 2016, Hensley stayed in Missouri, where she had a job as a video coach for Lindenwood and a goalie coach in St. Louis.

She was the only member of the 2017 World Championship team who had not played in a league that season.

No matter, she got the start for the opener against Canada over Alex Rigsby, who had blanked the Canadians in the 2016 World final but was mending from a torn hip capsule.

Hensley stopped all 18 Canadian shots, a performance that led Stauber, a former NHL goalie, to call on her again for both medal-round games. 11-0 over Germany in the semifinals. 3-2 over Canada in overtime for a fourth straight world title.

Hensley usually plays with a Bible verse somewhere on her mask. Maddie Rooney, a fellow goalie and roommate, said Hensley’s defining characteristics are that she devotes at least an hour a day to scripture and owns about 25 pairs of Nikes.

There’s also a small ice cream cone drawn at the base of her glove, an inside joke shared with her post-grad coach, Luke Venker.

“She used to get kind of upset if she couldn’t do something right, extremely frustrated, and we would start bickering at each other,” Venker said. “I go, ‘What’s going to make you happy right now?’ She yelled out, ‘Ice cream!’ The running joke is, if she gets mad, just think about ice cream.”

Hensley said that at Lindenwood, she would play in front of 60 fans “on a good night.” The school has never had a Winter Olympian, though two-time Paralympic champion hockey player Josh Pauls studied there, along with recent Summer Olympians.

Space was recently prepared in the athletic office for a framed U.S. hockey jersey to display next to a few football jerseys from NFL alumni.

“Goalies, they develop a little bit later than younger players,” Stauber said. “They can develop quite frankly in any program. Just because a goalie goes to Wisconsin doesn’t necesarily mean that they’re a lot better than somebody that’s at Lindenwood.”

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Clarification: An earlier version of this post did not mention that two-time Paralympic champion Josh Pauls attended Lindenwood.

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.