Hockey’s best defender? Megan Keller, according to teammate Brianna Decker

Megan Keller of the U.S. women's Olympic hockey team
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In the women’s ice hockey gold medal game at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, U.S. defender Megan Keller posted a team-high 29:05 TOI (time on ice).

But Keller wasn’t on the ice – or even on her own team’s bench – during the most nail-biting moments of that game. With one minute and 35 seconds remaining in overtime, Keller was sent to the penalty box due to an illegal hit on Canadian star Marie-Philip Poulin.

“You hate to put your team in that position, but at the same time, I had so much confidence in my teammates,” Keller reflected to NBC Olympics research in 2020.

When overtime expired and the U.S. and Canada were still tied 2-2, Keller tried to leave the penalty box and rejoin her teammates for the shootout.

“I went to skate back to the bench and they (the officials) are like, ‘Nope, you gotta stay in there,'” Keller said. “I didn’t know – honestly – that was a rule.”

And so, it was from inside the penalty box that Keller watched her teammates clinch the U.S. women’s hockey team’s first Olympic gold in 20 years.

“Watching the shootout in there was a little stressful, but I couldn’t get the Zamboni door open quick enough as soon as Jocelyne (Lamoureux-Davidson) scored and Maddie (Rooney) made that last save,” she said.

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Four years later, Keller returns to the Olympic stage as “the best defenseman in the world,” according to U.S. teammate Brianna Decker.

“I’m saying this so confidently because I truly believe it to my core,” Decker said in an appearance with Keller on the latest episode of the On Her Turf podcast.

Keller, who grew up in Farmington, Michigan, attended Boston College, where she became the first three-time First-Team All-American in program history. She took a year off between her junior and senior year in order to train with Team USA in the lead-up to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games.

As for how Keller became the best defender in the world, Decker cited her mobility, size, and skating technique. Plus the fact that she’s always willing to stay after practice to work on skills that need fine-tuning.

“She’s one of the most dynamic (defenders) that I’ve seen,” Decker said. “I’m glad she’s on my team – our team – instead of playing against each other.”

“It’s humbling to hear coming from someone I’ve always looked up to since I first stepped on the team,” Keller replied. “It makes the game so much easier when you’re surrounded by so many great players like Decks.”

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(The full interview with U.S. hockey players Brianna Decker and Megan Keller is embedded above. You can also listen to the On Her Turf podcast on Apple, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app.)

NBC Sports’ Megan Soisson and the NBC Olympics research team contributed to this report. 

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC