SOCHI, Russia – Christmas came a little bit later this year for Katey Stone and the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team, but it was a gift well worth waiting for.
After missing several months while recovering from offseason hip surgery, Amanda Kessel finally returned to bolster an already potent offensive attack shortly after the start of the New Year. Her return was like going from a straight flush to a royal flush with the turn of a single card.
It was a shot in the arm for the U.S. gold-medal hopes, and an even bigger boost to one of the most dynamic players in women’s hockey.
Kessel had surgery over the summer to repair a hip injury that had been hampering her for quite some time. As her recovery continued on through the fall and lasted until the winter, the thought crossed her mind that her Olympic dream may be put on the back burner.
“I was out pretty much all year. There were times when I wondered if I would be able to come back,” said the reigning Patty Kazmaier Award winner, who did play in a few scrimmages against Boston-area boys’ teams before being declared ready to go.
She was quickly reunited with Brianna Decker and Kendall Coyne on a line that produced 22 points at the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Ottawa. Kessel scored the game-winning goal on a dynamic rush, sidestepping a check from Canadian veteran Hayley Wickenheiser, steamrolling down the right side and firing a wrist shot from the faceoff circle over Shannon Szabados’ glove.
“They had a lot of success and have dynamic chemistry,” said Stone. “They’re young kids who play well together and don't feel the pressure. They use their speed and talk to each other a lot. We didn’t feel like it was broken, so we didn’t want to change them.”
Nobody is happier to see her back on the ice than her linemates, who have been the beneficiaries of plays that few other players in the game can make.
“It’s great to have Amanda back on our line,” said Coyne, who scored a pair of goals against her former Northeastern University teammate Florence Schelling. “She makes Decks and my job a lot easier. We know we’re going to get the puck wherever we are because she sees us. She makes it look easy.”
The comeback hasn’t been all smooth sailing. She still gets winded and has to cut her shifts a little shorter than she’d like. She also said her play is a little rusty, although judging from her two games so far here in Sochi, one would be hard pressed to notice.
“It’s tough coming back from something like that,” said the younger sister of Phil Kessel, who arrived in Sochi on Monday as part of the U.S. Men’s Team.
“I’m still trying to find my way. You don’t see the game the same right when you come back, so these preliminary games are really good for me.”
What makes Kessel such a force may not be her ability to find seams in opposing defenses, her creativity or nerves of steel to hold onto the puck until the last second before making a pass or shot. It’s her unselfishness both on the ice and in the locker room that has endeared her to coaches and teammates alike.
In Monday’s game against Switzerland, Kessel appeared to connect on a pair of goals just eight seconds apart, an Olympic record. The first came as Decker’s shot caromed off of Swiss goalie Florence Schelling’s pad and slowly rolled toward the goal line. As Kessel swooped in to tap it home, the puck crossed the line. Kessel was initially awarded the goal, but she knew it belonged to Decker and sought out the officials to make the case.
“It’s just a testament to Amanda’s character to give credit where credit is due,” Stone said. “That’s throughout our lineup. It doesn't matter who puts the puck in the net. It’s making sure that we recognize the effort all the way around.”
In the third period, Coyne appeared to jam home her own rebound past Schelling, her former teammate at Northeastern University, but officials allowed the play to continue and minutes later Kessel scored what would have been her third goal of the game. It was later overturned upon another video review.
When you’re that good, people just want to give you credit for goals that aren’t yours.
“It was a good game. That happens sometimes [seams open up in the defense], and sometimes the puck just bounces your way,” she said. “Today is just one of those days.”