Women’s World Championships: On to the Medal Round

Semifinals Recap

USA 3, Finland 0

After one of the most exciting non-US vs Canada games in the history of this tournament, the U.S. is moving on to the gold medal game. No one besides those two North American teams have ever played for gold at the IIHF World Championships, but Finland came very, very close to making history. Led by goaltender Noora Räty, the Finns kept the game scoreless for 54 minutes. They actually almost took the lead themselves in the second period after Michelle Karvinen ripped a shot that hit the crossbar after a nice move to beat an American defender one-on-one.

Finland could not hold on any longer, however, despite a spectacular performance in net by Räty and a great defensive effort by their team overall. The U.S. dominated the game, out-shooting Finland 43-11. It seemed like they’d never be able to solve Räty, but Hilary Knight finally got one to squeeze past her  and over the goal line with just over six minutes left. Right after that, Monique Lamoureux finished off a great feed from Alex Carpenter on the power play to put Team USA up by two goals and effectively end the Finns’ hopes. Overall, it was a great effort by both teams. Finland deserves all the credit in the world for keeping it that close and that long. The U.S. also deserves credit for showing composure and sticking with it the entire game until they got the win.

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Canada 8, Russia 1

The second semifinal was far less dramatic, with the Canadians blowing out the Russians, who were having a really good tournament up until this game. Even still, there’s not much for Russia to be ashamed of after this loss, as the chances are very high that this Canadian squad would blow out every team in this tournament except the United States. The Russians just couldn’t keep up with Canada and couldn’t really contain any of their players, but they still fared pretty well. They were able to mount some type of offense, putting up 18 shots on goal, a decent number considering the disparity in depth between the two teams.

Canada just continued to roll, though, setting up a rematch against Team USA for the gold medal. In this semifinal their offensive depth was once again on display, with many different players contributing points-wise and all of their lines clicking and creating good scoring chances. The Canadians look focused and ready to throw everything at the U.S. in order to win that gold medal.

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A Look Ahead

Bronze Medal Game: Russia vs. Finland, Tuesday 4/9 at 3:30 PM E.T.

The Finns are coming off that very gutsy performance against Team USA in the semifinals, and after such a tough and emotional loss, they’ll be hungry to win a medal. They’ve got a tough, gritty squad this year; they can play physical, especially on the defensive side. The Finns’ greatest weapons will be their strong team defense and, of course, goaltender Noora Räty. They know what they’re doing offensively too, and even if they don’t have many elite finishers, they’ve got Michelle Karvinen up front, and she’s been money this whole tournament.

It will be difficult for the Russians to break apart the Finnish defense, but they’ve definitely got the skill up front to compete. After that blowout loss to Canada in the semifinals, they should be just as hungry as Finland to prove that they’re a good enough team to win a medal. One area where Russia can look to capitalize is in transition. The Finns like to try long stretch passes through the neutral zone to try and spring players on odd-man rushes and breaks. If the Russians can own the neutral zone and pick off those passes, they’ll be able to get numbers going the other way themselves.

Gold Medal Game: Canada vs. United States, Tuesday 4/9 at 7:30 PM E.T.

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Just like it’s been in every IIHF Women’s World Championships before, so it will be again: USA versus Canada for the gold. Canada beat the U.S. 3-2 in a shootout in the preliminary round, so the Americans will be looking to avenge that loss. But even bigger than that defeat for the Americans was last year’s gold medal game, where Canada beat Team USA in overtime in Burlington, Vermont. After losing a gold medal on home ice last year, the U.S. will surely want to pay the Canadians back in kind this year.

There’s a lot to take away for both teams from that game in group play last week. For the Canadians, it was a comeback win that showed their character, as well as how dominant their offense can be. They had the U.S. pinned in their zone for the majority of the third period and the five minute overtime period. For the Americans, the story was breakdowns and turnovers.

Team USA looked over-matched in every battle for the puck in the last 35 minutes of that game. Although they got off to a good start in the first period, they could not have strayed further away from their game plan if they tried. They had no answer for the constant Canadian pressure. I think that the way the refs were calling the game was a big reason why. It was called perfectly fair on both sides, but they were letting them play a little bit, which allowed the Canadians to really establish their physical game and overpower the U.S. players. The U.S. as a team isn’t as focused around that kind of style themselves, so they were unable to find an answer for it. The Americans were also really looking fatigued, which is uncharacteristic of them as they’re a very well-conditioned team; I think that was just a result of how the game was playing out.

The Canadians subsequently looked very, very good in that game. They established their offensive game plan and completely disrupted Team USA’s passing game, one of their greatest weapons. They were getting to every loose puck around the net, which is how they were able to tie the game up in the first place. And they were forcing turnovers along the boards, preventing the Americans from chipping the puck out and keeping them pinned in their zone. It was, overall, a great display of hockey on the part of Team Canada, and they’ll certainly try and replicate it on Tuesday night.

Brianna Decker of the U.S. and Natalie Spooner of Canada were, in my opinion, the best players in that preliminary round game for their respective teams. Both were doing a great job of controlling the puck, getting shots to the net, and creating quality chances for their team. They’ll certainly be important parts of their offenses in the gold medal game. But who are some other key players for each team?

For Canada, Marie-Philip Poulin will definitely be counted on to lead the attack. She’s been arguably the best player in this entire tournament, compiling six goals and 10 points in four games. She brings so much to the table for her team. She’s obviously got a great offensive skillset, but she’s equally as good in the face-off circle and at blocking shots, and she can win pretty much any one-on-one battle anywhere on the ice. The line of Sarah Vaillancourt, Meghan Agosta-Marciano, and Haley Irwin will also play an important role for Canada. Those are three extremely talented players, so if they’re on their game, the Canadian offense will be very difficult to stop.

In addition to Decker, the U.S. attack, featuring players like Monique Lamoureux, Jocelyne Lamoureux, and Amanda Kessel, will look to continue their scoring ways. The team’s goal-scoring totals aren’t as high this tournament as they’ve been in years past, but these players have proven that they can produce and finish, and that’s exactly what Team USA is going to need. The duo of Hilary Knight and Meghan Duggan on the third line will also be crucial to the team’s success. They’re world-class players, but they’re also extremely reliable, and that’s a valuable asset for the U.S. to have. Knight finally scored a goal in the semifinals, and if these two can find ways to produce against Canada, it’ll be huge for Team USA.

As far as keys to the game go, the Canadians will want to do more of the same. They’ll look to bottle up the U.S. offense as much as possible, and play a dominant physical style. It’ll also really help them to get traffic to the net and prevent any in front of their own, because in these kinds of tightly-contested match-ups, usually the team that wins the front of the net wins the game. They’re going to have the crowd on their side, so even if things get a little difficult they just need to ride it out and wait for the momentum to shift their way.

The Americans will want to really prepare themselves this time for Canada’s physical style. They’re going to need to keep their feet moving to avoid the hits, and their lines will need to be clicking so that they can use quick passes to get themselves out of trouble. A couple of early goals again will help to silence the crowd, but if they can’t remain composed they’ll really be up against it. Special teams are going to be huge in this game as well, and the Americans’ 100% penalty killing rate will likely benefit them there. They’ll need to keep that up to make it even harder for Canada to score.

All in all, this is one of the best rivalries in all of sports. The preliminary round game was exciting enough, but the intensity should be even higher this time around with a gold medal on the line. Every single player will be leaving everything out on the ice, and it should make for another epic match-up between these two teams.