U.S. Women’s Hockey Team Is Now Emphasizing Style. But What About Goals?

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Prioritizing style over goals is essentially hockey blasphemy, and Stauber’s rebellion faces its biggest test Thursday, when the United States women take on Canada in the final game of group play. So far, the results have been mixed: a nail-biting, 3-1 victory against a gritty Finland team and a 5-0 wipeout of an overmatched Russian side.

To watch the United States play is to see something very strange if you have ever watched hockey. They often seem as likely to skate and pass backward as they are to go forward.

They zig and zag around the ice in a series of circles and east-west routes until someone sees a seam in the defense she can penetrate. Suddenly the puck flies forward, and the United States is attacking the throat of the opponent’s goal. Forwards skate to the back. Defensemen occasionally zip to the front. The idea is to never give up the puck, because if the other team doesn’t have the puck, they can’t score. The less time the opponent has the puck, the less time they have to score.

“Whatever lane you see you take,” said Amanda Kessel, the 26-year-old star forward whose brother, Phil, plays for the N.H.L.’s Pittsburgh Penguins. “It’s different than a lot of us are used to, and if you have one person not doing it, it’s not going to work.”

If this sounds familiar, you may be a soccer fan who watches possession-obsessed Barcelona, or remember the so-called “Clockwork Orange” Netherlands teams of the 1970s. The Dutch created the concept of “total football,” in which everyone plays everywhere, attacking in a constant, fluid motion, filling space and moving the ball wherever it exists.

And just like the Dutch challenged long-held ideas, the United States women’s style questions the traditional approach to hockey, which is usually about doing whatever it takes to get the puck into the other team’s defensive zone, even if that means dumping it into an empty corner and giving chase.

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Gig Marvin, front, after scoring the Americans’ fourth goal in a 5-0 thrashing of Russia.

Credit
Srdjan Suki/European Pressphoto Agency

It’s not always pretty, but it kind of works. When there are 10 skaters in one-third of the ice and the puck is sliding from side to side, the goalie tends to get screened and keeps shifting position. That creates opportunities to sneak the puck into the net.

The new American style is still beautiful to watch. It’s all speed and movement and a series of slashing, lightning-quick attacks.

“We’re playing more of a flow game,” said Brianna Decker, a team captain. “It makes it special and allows us to be hockey players.”

Megan Keller, a defenseman, beamed when asked to describe how it feels to play this way. “We all read off each other,” she said. “You just go out there and play.”

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“We’re playing more of a flow game,” said Brianna Decker, right, a team captain. “It makes it special and allows us to be hockey players.”

Credit
Brian Snyder/Reuters

The problem is that it’s not clear if it’s the best way to score goals. The United States played Canada five times during the fall. In three of those games, they failed to score more than a single goal.

The tying and go-ahead goals against Finland came during a three-minute stretch when the Americans pinned the Finns in their defensive zone and created the kind of chaos in front of the net that produces traditional goals in hockey, a game where the shots-on-goal statistic, which the Americans usually dominate, can be deceptive because all shots are not equally effective.

All those creative, slashing attacks may be works of art, but the result is often a dead-on battle between an attacker and a goalie who usually has an unobstructed view of the puck.

That was what happened for most of the first half-hour against Finland, a stretch the Americans mostly dominated, everywhere but on the scoreboard, as the Finns clung to a 1-0 lead behind their goaltender, Noora Raty.

“You are not going to score if it’s a point-blank shot,” United States forward Monique Lamoureux-Morando said. “You’ve got to get tips, screens and deflections.”

Stauber, the first goaltender to win college hockey’s player of the year award, probably knows this better than most. His hope is that all that possession and attacking and shooting will produce even more attacking and shooting, and he’s trying to remind his players of one of the oldest of hockey adages: You can’t score if you don’t shoot.

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