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Disaster looming, Stecklein bails out USA in tough women's hockey win over Czechs

Stecklein, from Roseville, Minn., and the University of Minnesota, proved that any player is capable of a big moment in a tournament. Even a stay-at-home defender.

Ice Hockey - Women's Play-offs Quarterfinals - United States v Czech Republic
Lee Stecklein (right) and Cayla Barnes of the United States celebrate after their 2022 Beijing Olympics quarterfinal match against the Czech Republic on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at the Wukesong Sports Centre in Beijing, China. The Americans won 4-1.
Brian Snyder / Reuters
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BEIJING — Lee Stecklein scored six goals in 108 career games for Team USA entering the Olympics. So, yeah, she's pretty much a stay-at-home defender.

But, goodness, someone had to step up on Friday against a feisty Czech Republic team that had maintained a 1-1 tie with Team USA well into the third period. The squad was one play away from being one of the biggest upset victims in women's Olympic hockey history.

With plenty of bodies in front of the net nearly seven minutes into the third period, Stecklein fired from just outside the right circle. At least, she figured, it could get tipped or bounce off someone.

Her shot deflected off a Czech Republic defender and into the net.

Team USA's screams were part excitement and part exhalation. It went on to score two more goals, one an empty-netter, to turn back the Czechs, 4-1, and advance to the semifinals of the women's hockey tournament. Team USA has won medals in all six previous Olympic competitions — two golds, three silvers and a bronze — so winning Friday avoided disaster..

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Stecklein, from Roseville, Minn., and the University of Minnesota, proved that any player is capable of a big moment in a tournament. Even a stay-at-home defender.

Ice Hockey - Women's Play-offs Quarterfinals - United States v Czech Republic
Czech Republic goaltender Klara Peslarova (29) makes a save as Kendall Coyne Schofield of the United States (26) and Dominika Laskova of Czech Republic (14) battle for the puck during the the women's hockey quarterfinal of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, at Wukesong Sports Centre in Beijing.
Brian Snyder / Reuters

"She was shooting the puck into a great space," USA coach Joel Johnson said, "because we had traffic with (Grace Zumwinkle) and (Hayley Scamurra) in front of the net."

It was the right play by a heady player who Johnson has known since his assistant coaching days at Minnesota. Even though she's just 27 years old, Stecklein considered retiring from the program after the last World Cup cycle ended with a goal medal at the Pyeongchang Games. A graduate of the Carlson School of Management, Stecklein was getting started in the business world.

"Definitely after the Olympics you take a moment to see if I'm ready to keep going," Stecklein said.

Johnson called her to pitch a return, inviting Stecklein to a winter camp after that Olympics. She decided to stick with Team USA, where she is unofficially the team mom.

"Very happy to be here and be here with this team," she said. "It's not something to easily step away from and I miss the girls too much to just stay away from them."

Her experience on the backline is vital to Team USA's goal of repeating. Consider this game as an example.

Team USA outshot the Czech Republic 18-0 in the first period, unable to push anything past goaltender Klara Peslarova and a compact Czech defense intent on getting in the way of shots. Then Michaela Pejzlova slammed home a rebound, the Czech fans in the stands at the Wukesong Sports Center screamed and Team USA trailed 1-0.

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Before the magnitude of a potential upset gripped everyone at the arena, Hilary Knight fired home a rebound of Kendall Coyne Schofield's blast from the slot to tie the game less than a minute later. Then the USA killed a five-minute major Dani Cameranesi picked up for boarding, a momentum changer.

Team USA came out with double-barrels blazing in the third, putting eight shots on net in the opening three minutes. Then Stecklein saw her chance, took it and Team USA had the lead.

Savannah Harmon's power-play goal made it 3-1 with 3:49 left, and Coyne Schofield added an empty-netter.

Did Team USA have an off game? Did it take the Czechs lightly? Are the Czechs, loaded with players from U.S. colleges, better than anticipated? Should the gold medal just be given to Canada now?

The answer is that the USA is through to the semifinals — and that's all that matters. The team will have to address why it took 39 more shots than Canada during the four games of pool play but scored 13 fewer goals. Scoring has been an issue despite getting at least 50 shots on goal in every game of the tournament

But ugly, grinding wins are allowed at this stage. And, fortunately for Team USA, Stecklein has stuck around to help them through these types of games.

"We're pretty fortunate," Johnson said, "that she answered the phone when I called."

©2022 StarTribune. Visit startribune.com . Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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