US hopes for gold rest on trio of Olympic rookie goaltenders

In this April 3, 2017, file photo, United States head coach Robb Stauber on the bench during a game against Finland.
In this April 3, 2017, file photo, United States head coach Robb Stauber on the bench during a game against Finland. –The Associated Press

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WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. (AP) — Maddie Rooney, Nicole Hensley and Alex Rigsby all are Olympic rookies. Even though Robb Stauber has coached Americans in the Winter Games before, Pyeongchang will mark his debut as head coach on the biggest stage for women’s hockey.

They all have something else in common.

They are all goaltenders, used to the pressure of being a team’s last line of defense. Stauber , who played 62 games in the NHL with Los Angeles and Buffalo, believes simply being a goalie prepares a player for pressure and high expectations.

“All of them have been in big games before,” said Stauber, who coached goalies for the U.S. women in 2014 at Sochi. “When you’re successful in that environment, it’s never about the big game. It’s about staying in the moment, and they all know how to stay in the moment. Regardless of the Olympics, that’s something they have to do. Goalies that are able to find that peace of mind in the most critical time play well. It’s very simple. They will play well.”

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That’s a lot of confidence in untested goalies as the Americans try to end their 20-year gold medal drought.

“We’ve got a great coaching staff and great personnel to make sure everyone’s going to be on the right page when push comes to shove and it’s time to perform,” said forward Hilary Knight, a two-time Olympic silver medalist. “I’m extremely excited for our goaltenders. They’re great young women who have great potential, and you’ve already seen them own the world stage.”

All three want to be in net starting Feb. 11 when the United States opens Olympic play against Finland.

“Obviously, there’s three of us fighting for one spot,” Hensley said. “At the same time, all three of us are very supportive of each other because nobody knows what a goalie goes through except for another goaltender, so it’s really important that the three of us support each other. But at the same time, we’re pushing each other to get better because at the end of the day if we’re doing that, that’s what’s going to be best for our team come February.”

The Americans will be taking all three goalies to Pyeongchang. The final roster will be announced Jan. 1, but the crucial decision will be who plays on Feb. 15 in the preliminary round against four-time Olympic champion Canada. The semifinals are Feb. 19, with both the U.S. and Canada favored to reach the final.

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Stauber has made it clear he doesn’t want to make that decision too early.

“Got to let these things play out and when you see what you think is a clear picture, which takes time clearly, then you build your strategy off that clear picture,” Stauber said.

The Americans have lost four straight games to the rival Canadians as part of their pre-Olympic exhibition tour.

Rooney went 3-2 against Canada this fall, dropping the last two games. She was in net for a 5-2 victory Oct. 22, then notched two more wins over Canada during the Four Nations Cup in November with the United States outscoring Canada 9-3 combined. Rooney also was in net for an 8-2 win over Finland to kick off that tournament.

Rooney made 24 saves in a 2-1 overtime loss to Canada on Dec. 3 and she also made 24 saves in a 2-1 overtime loss to Canada on Dec. 15.

“We’re all rookies on this Olympic team,” said Rooney, a 20-year-old goalie from Andover, Minnesota, who is taking the season off for Minnesota-Duluth. “Every chance you get, you want to prove you’re the best and you want to get the start on each night.”

The 26-year-old Rigsby has been on the U.S. roster for four world championships, playing in the last three tournaments. The goalie from Delafield, Wisconsin, was in net for a 2-0 loss to Canada on Dec. 5 and she made 33 saves Dec. 13 in a 3-1 loss to Canada . Rigsby and Hensley both played in a 5-1 loss to Canada in Boston on Oct. 25.

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Hensley has the biggest win yet. The 23-year-old from Lakewood, Colorado, made 28 saves last spring to help the Americans beat Canada 3-2 in overtime for their fourth straight world championship. Hensley went 3-0-0-0 with two shutouts in that tournament.

“We’re used to being the No. 1, and I think that craving for that position is what pushes each of us to want that same spot here,” Hensley said. “At the same time, we have to be supportive of each other because at the end of the day whoever’s in net, that’s what’s best for the team and that’s what we want is to win.”

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More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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