Olympic Women’s Hockey Notebook: Medal Game Previews

Bronze Medal Game: Finland vs. OAR

  • We didn’t learn a ton about either of these teams in their respective semifinals. The Finns lost 5-0 to the United States, a pretty surprising margin considering how they played Team USA to within one goal earlier in the tournament – and competently, too, not just in general upset fashion. OAR also fell 5-0 to Canada, and though they skated pretty well against Canadians through two periods, it was an obvious mismatch that makes it difficult to judge them.
  • For Finland, the most crucial task for them may be to just get back basics and play the way they’ve been successful playing. To be sure, they ran into a motivated USA team that finally capitalized on its talent, but I think the Finns made a mistake in sitting back and giving them space. They need to find their groove again against OAR, especially when it comes to moving through the neutral zone; if they can force turnovers and transition quickly, it’ll be a difficult pace for OAR to play at.
  • OAR, on the flip side, will obviously want to prevent that from happening. If they can keep play to the outside, I think they stand a good chance of frustrating the Finnish attack. A low-shot game likely benefits the Olympic Athletes from Russia, too; they have the goaltending to keep it a close one, but when it comes down to it, they want to keep a skilled Finnish roster from getting into high-scoring areas and setting up plays there.
  • Based on their meeting in the preliminary round, Finland has the obvious edge here after taking that game 5-1. Michelle Karvinen broke out in that game with two goals and the rest of the offense got going as well, generating 37 shots on net. The Finns will be hoping for more of the same; I’d say a key player for them is Jenni Hiirikoski, who is no doubt an all-world defender but hasn’t fully made her mark yet in this tournament. If she dictates play from the blue line, which she does better than anyone else in the world, this will be a tough one for OAR.
  • A key player for OAR is Anna Shokhina, who was outstanding for her team during their big quarterfinal win against Switzerland and also scored their lone goal against the Finns. She wasn’t alone in scoring against the Swiss, however, and I think if they can get another line to be just as opportunistic again, they’ll stand a much better chance in this one than they did in their 5-1 defeat.

Gold Medal Game: Canada vs. United States

  • We’ve been building towards this one for the last four years, really, ever since Marie-Philip Poulin’s overtime goal ensured victory for the Canadians in Sochi, and if there’s ever been a hockey game that doesn’t need an introduction, it’s this one. Team USA is trying to avenge a heartbreaking loss against their bitter rivals. Team Canada is trying to win their fifth straight Olympic gold medal against their bitter rivals. We’re all just going to try and survive watching it. What could be better?
  • Canada got the best of the United States in the preliminary round, winning 2-1 but getting outshot 45-23. But Team USA played their best game of the tournament by far against Finland in the semifinals, finally getting back to the things that make them such a good team: pushing the pace, buzzing on the forecheck, and making the plays needed to not just get the puck on net but do it from spots where they’re going to score. They need more of the same, and I think they’ll also badly want to score first in this one. It feels like so many of the highs and lows for this team have come from confidence, and an early lead would be a huge spark for that.
  • Canada definitely needs to build off of their win in group play and slow down that attack a bit. The United States has a strong offense, and no one’s expecting them to go the entire game without controlling it for stretches, but the Canadians need to make sure they limit second- and third-chance opportunities, and get pucks out of the defensive zone quickly. These are obvious goals for any team but I think it needs to be more of a focus to gain the advantage in this game, and it’s something Canada did well in the December series, too. This Canadian team has gotten stronger all season long, and they’ve really come together, with players like Sarah Nurse, Laura Stacey, Emily Clark, Jillian Saulnier and Renata Fast all growing into noticeable roles. Those depth forwards have been huge already in this tournament and will be key factors again in the gold medal game.
  • Important match-ups to watch: goaltending, as usual. It looks like Maddie Rooney will get the start for the United States, and Shannon Szabados started Canada’s semifinal against OAR. The special teams match-up will also be huge; Team USA has a power play clicking at 25% while the Canadians are at 17.4%, and one or two power play goals in this game is sure to swing things for one team. Last match-up to watch for: the defensive units. The U.S. defenders will be tasked with moving pucks up quickly to limit zone time for the Canadians, and leading the passing attack. While transitioning well is also a focus for the Canadian D, I think for that group it starts with keeping the U.S. forwards to the outside and making sure they have no time to make plays when they carry the puck into the Canadian zone.
  • Players to watch for Team USA: The Dani Cameranesi, Hannah Brandt and Amanda Kessel line was great against Finland, and they’ll need to have another big game here to give the Canadians all they can handle. Captain Meghan Duggan was also huge in the semifinal. D Megan Keller still has so much potential to tap into as a high-risk, high-reward player and while you want to see her play it safe, she can make a big difference on the breakout.
  • Players to watch for Team Canada: Brianne Jenner is someone who’s had a bit of a quiet tournament so far, but she does so many things well to push Canada’s offense forward. She’s also won 80% of her faceoffs at these Olympics. Defenders Jocelyne Larocque and Laura Fortino will also have a big impact on this game. Canada relies on them heavily in all situations, albeit for very different reasons, and their play could give their team a big edge as the game goes on.

Olympic Women’s Hockey Notebook: Quarterfinals Wrap

OAR 6, Switzerland 2

  • This was Switzerland’s game to lose, so this one is tough to swallow for their side. OAR scored early, with Anna Shokhina making one of the tournament’s great plays to score while her team was shorthanded by two players. Alina Müller did what Alina Müller does and tied it up right at the start of the second, and after a power play goal from Lara Stalder it looked like the Swiss had finally taken control of the game with a 2-1 lead.
  • The Olympic Athletes from Russia then scored four unanswered goals, and then an empty netter, to put it way out of reach for Switzerland. For their part, I thought the Swiss were pushing hard to get it tied up again and generating several key chances, like Müller and Stalder combining for two shorthanded 2-on-1 rushes while down two goals in the third. Nothing came of either of them, however, and OAR made it 5-2 on the same power play.
  • OAR was opportunistic and the Swiss had several defensive zone breakdowns that cost them dearly, but I don’t think their performance was so far off the Switzerland team we saw in group play. They didn’t quite walk through Group B; they gave up 39 shots on goal to Japan and beat Sweden by a goal. This isn’t to take away from their 3-0 start at all, and their top players were still creating chances; but I saw a tired Swiss team coming off of two hard-fought games, whereas OAR hadn’t played any close games yet.
  • It was an inspiring performance from OAR nonetheless, who badly needed one after three straight blowout losses in group play. In the end, they wound up exactly where they were going to be whether or not they played any of their first three games tightly, and that was in a quarterfinal game with a chance to advance. Shokhina was excellent, scoring two goals and two assists; Olga Sosina was a threat and Yelena Dergachyova was strong as well. Goaltender Nadezhda Morozova was big in net, too, making saves when she needed to and stymieing a Swiss comeback in the third period.

Finland 7, Sweden 2

  • I’ll preface this by saying I’m always high on the Finns and believe they’re the clear No. 3 team in the world, but it seems like they tend to play worse against teams like Sweden and Russia than they do against the North American squads, despite the obvious gap there. An example: Finland beat Canada at the 2017 World Championships and would have received a bye to the semifinals if they didn’t lose the group opener to Russia.
  • All this is to say that what we’ve seen in this Olympics is something different. After two disappointing losses to the U.S. and Canada to start the tournament, Finland skated to a 5-1 win over Russia and came out blazing in this quarterfinal, scoring early and often to secure the win and advance.
  • The usual suspects were involved in the offense in this one, with the top line of Riikka Välilä, Michelle Karvinen and Susanna Tapani scoring four of the Finns’ seven goals. But nine other players had a point, and the line of Petra Nieminen, Venla Hovi, and Linda Välimäki were the ones to get the scoring started once again for the Finns. That’s been huge for them and a big reason why they’ve been able to win more handily in Pyeongchang.
  • There are so many great players in this sport and I love watching all of them for different reasons. One of them is Tapani. Nobody makes the game seem easier than her.
  • On the flip side of this game, you’ve got to feel for Team Sweden. They were overmatched by the Finns’ talent in this one but it was definitely not for lack of trying or caring in a big quarterfinal game against their rivals. It’s worth noting that the players on the ice aren’t the ones I’d call responsible for what’s become a rather low ceiling for the Swedes. Meredith Foster of The Ice Garden offered good insight last May into what’s gone on behind the scenes with Sweden’s coaching and organizational leadership. They are a hungry, talented group that deserves the proper support, and you’ve got to hope their federation does better by them in the next Olympic cycle.

Semifinals: United States vs. Finland; Canada vs. OAR

Some things to watch for when the United States takes on Finland;

  • Look for a big performance in net from Noora Räty, who I believe still has her best to give in this tournament.
  • To follow that up, if Finland somehow grabs a multi-goal lead in this game at any point, you’d have to think doubt becomes a factor for a United States team that has lost its scoring prowess under this year’s coaching.
  • For Team USA, it would of course be big for momentum if they could get some more players involved in the offense here. The Lamoureux twins, after being shamefully underutilized this entire season, have been great so far at the Olympics, and Kendall Coyne has scored some big goals. But Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker need to get going, and it would be huge if the Hannah Brandt, Dani Cameranesi and Amanda Kessel could finally break out.
  • Will USA stick with Maddie Rooney in net? She’s started both of the team’s most important games so far.

And what to watch for when Canada takes on OAR:

  • Team Canada also has an interesting question mark in net. Shannon Szabados, in my opinion, has earned the starting job, but all three of Canada’s goalies started one game in group play, with Geneviève Lacasse getting the nod in the match-up against Team USA.
  • If this is going to be a game, OAR’s goaltending needs to be nothing short of stellar as well.
  • I wouldn’t say it’s a major cause for concern, but Canada was outshot by the Americans two to one in their preliminary round game. They will undoubtedly have a stronger performance in this game, but I think they’d like to get a multi-layered attack rolling early in this one.

Olympic Women’s Hockey Notebook: Group Play, Game 1 Notes

Sweden 2, Japan 1

  • This was a decent start to the Olympics for both teams, albeit a better one on the scoreboard for Sweden. I think we’re still a ways away from calling Japan a truly competitive team, but they’re definitely a program on the rise. This isn’t something that will happen this Olympics, or maybe even before the next one, but I’m super intrigued to see where Japan can take things and how quickly they can close the gap developmentally and catch some of these European countries.
  • Sweden does not have the flashiest group of forwards but they have a fairly good mix of experience and skill. Both goals were scored off of really nice plays, especially the go-ahead goal from Sara Hjalmarsson early in the third period. She didn’t hesitate at all taking a no-look feed from Erika Grahm, crashing hard and putting it away. It was a nice sequence for a team that needs that level of execution consistently.
  • Their defense is going to be pressed much harder when they eventually play Switzerland in their final game of group play, but the Swedes take on Korea next, which I think will be a good opportunity for them to settle in a little more. We’re already seeing Emilia Ramboldt being leaned on pretty heavily, but Annie Svedin and Johanna Fällman are also solid players with experience.

Switzerland 8, Korea 0

  • Alina Müller’s performance spoke for itself in this one. She tied an Olympic record with four goals, and had a natural hat trick before the end of the first period. She’s no stranger to big performances on this stage; she assisted on the tying goal and put away an empty netter in the bronze medal game in 2014 – as a 15-year-old. Just a special, special player who already has the tools and the poise to be a major impact player here.
  • I’ve long been a fan of Swiss forwards Phoebe Stänz and Lara Stalder, who both pack a lot of punch as true scoring threats. Müller is on another level even above those two, and there’s no doubt that all three give Switzerland some really good weapons up front. Maybe it’s not worth getting excited about a drubbing against Korea, but this is not a team I’d be willing to write off with those kinds of weapons up front – and a pretty good history of winning medals when they weren’t really in the conversation to do so.

United States 3, Finland 1

  • I think Team Finland is way past the point of being satisfied with close games against the top two. The fact that this game was competitive should be no surprise at this point, and it has to be frustrating for the Finns to not have come away with a win.
  • This was a good showing for Finland, though; Michelle Karvinen and Susanna Tapani were threats all game, as usual, and there’s no way they stay off the scoresheet for too long. Noora Räty was dialed in. Venla Hovi scored the game’s opening goal with seconds left in the first period, and I thought she had a strong game overall. Petra Nieminen made a really nice play to set up that goal, and Emma Nuutinen had a really good showing as well. All encouraging signs for Finland, who will need a well-established secondary attack going forward in this tournament.
  • USA was able to turn it on in the second period, with Monique Lamoureux-Morando driving the net to tie it up and Kendall Coyne grabbing the lead for the U.S. on the power play. The team as a whole definitely looked more in sync than they did in their December series against Canada, and closed out the win in a tight game, which has to feel good confidence-wise at this point.
  • It looked like Team USA was trying out several different defensemen on the power play. It was only the first game, and maybe they wanted to get different people involved in those situations, but I found it to be an interesting personnel decision to not be calling on specific units in such a tight game.

Canada 5, OAR 0

  • OAR netminder Nadezhda Morozova did well to keep the Canadians off the board in the first period, but couldn’t hold them off for much longer in a tough game. Brianne Jenner, who has really been excellent all year, made a great play down low and snuck a feed to Rebecca Johnston in front to help Canada break through.
  • It wasn’t altogether the fastest start for the Canadians but they’re content to just roll their lines and let people like Jenner, Johnston, Marie-Philip Poulin, Natalie Spooner and Jennifer Wakefield make plays. Their attack has really come together this year but they’ll face a bigger challenge in their next game against Finland, who beat them in preliminary round action at the 2017 World Championships.
  • Nice to see Mélodie Daoust with a strong game for Canada, scoring two goals and leading all Canadian forwards in ice time at 17:44. Daoust and Jillian Saulnier are two players who may have had a little more to prove this year compared to other forwards here, and they’ve become important pieces up front for this team when it matters most.