The mighty United States women’s hockey team launched their first Olympic title defense in two decades with an air of menace on Thursday night, roaring to a 5-2 win in the opening game of pool play against a Finland team expected to contend for a medal.
But the Americans’ hopes of becoming the first US team to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals were dealt a devastating blow early on when assistant captain Brianna Decker suffered a leg injury that will sideline her for the duration of the tournament.
Decker, a three-time Olympian and steady veteran presence who has scored 170 points in 146 appearances with the national team, became trapped beneath Finland defender Ronja Savolainen midway through the opening period and the game still scoreless. The 31-year-old forward’s screams resounded through the nearly empty arena in a horrifying scene until she was stretchered off the ice by medical staff.
“It was sickening,” USA forward Amanda Kessel said afterward. “She is one of the toughest players I have ever played with. She is not staying down on the ice and not crying if it was not bad.”
She added: “We want to win for her.”
Kessel wasted no time after play resumed, tucking in the opening goal for Team USA less than two minutes later on an assist from Savannah Harmon. The Americans doubled the margin shortly after when Alex Carpenter beat the goaltender upstairs on a power play, making Finland pay for a Petra Nieminen hooking penalty.
The US took the game by the scruff after the first intermission, firing shots on goal with greater frequency until USA captain Kendall Coyne Schofield broke through twice in a 64-second span to bust things open. The Americans outshot their opponents 19-2 in the middle period and 52-12 overall.
Finland pulled one back on a power play early in the third, but Carpenter responded with her second goal of the night moments later, tapping the puck across the line off a pass from Abby Roque, who moved up into Decker’s spot on the second line. Susanna Tapani’s cosmetic goal for the Finns off the post in the dying minutes made for a scoreline that didn’t quite reflect the one-way traffic of the affair.
The fewer than 200 spectators invited by organizers to attend, all masked and distanced on one side of the 15,384-seat Wukesong Sports Centre, politely clapped and waved flags for all seven goals. Cheering was prohibited as a precaution against spreading the coronavirus.
“It was good to get that first one under our belt,” said Carpenter, a 2014 Olympic silver medalist who is back in the national team after she was surprisingly dropped ahead of the gold medal run four years ago. “That was a really good game for us to start. Finland always gives us a great game, so I think for us to come out and put up those goals, it’s a good confidence boost for our team moving forward.”
The women’s ice hockey tournament, which kicked off Thursday with four preliminary round games, is once again expected to come down to the USA and Canada, who delivered their own statement of intent earlier Thursday with a 12-1 win over Switzerland. The two countries have met in the final at the last three Winter Olympics and have dominated the world championship since its inception in 1990.
Four years ago in South Korea, the Americans saw off Canada in a penalty shootout in the final to deny their northern neighbors a fifth straight Olympic gold. But Canada hit back at the most recent world championships in August when Marie-Philip Poulin scored an overtime winner to end Team USA’s bid for a sixth straight title.
Finland, who captured the bronze medal in Pyeongchang, have been widely tipped as the likeliest outsider to upset the sport’s North American hegemony. Led by captain Jenni Hiirikoski, who was named the best defenseman at the past two Olympics, they are a well organized, defensively minded side with depth at every position.
But their ninth loss from nine all-time meetings with Team USA in Olympic play, none closer than two goals, showed just how far they have to go.
“USA started to skate a little more than we did and that is what showed on the scoreboard,” Finland defenseman Minnamari Tuominen said. “Obviously there’s room for improvement but I think that we worked hard and tried to execute what we talked about.”
• This article was amended on 4 February 2022 to clarify that the US team would be the first team from that country to win back-to-back Olympic ice hockey gold medals, not the first country overall; Canada won four titles in a row from 2002 to 2014.