Today USA whaled on Sweden, and if you follow any hockey writers on Twitter, you probably saw people talking about how uncompetitive and boring it is. Yes: Sweden got beat. After about 6 minutes of being clogged in the neutral zone, USA’s offense broke out and was rarely stifled after that. USA drew the Swedish defenders in, Sweden left passing lanes wide open, and the score ended 6-1. If Kelli Stack hadn’t lost a faceoff, it could’ve been a shutout for Vetter.
As always with women’s hockey (for me), the commentary for this game was somewhat maddening. Yo, did you know the Blackhawks are good at hockey? This apparently warrants discussion during one of a handful of Team USA games that will receive professional commentary in the course of 4 years. What doesn’t warrant professional commentary, apparently, is the fact that there is a North American women’s league – the CWHL – and they are hoping to pay their players within five years.
The short story of that game is that USA took too many penalties and had a disastrous 3rd period. Canada’s power play wasn’t actually that dangerous; they went 1 for 4 (technically 5, but the majority of one was 4-on-4). But it’s hard to get or sustain momentum when you’re on the kill so often. On top of that, for some reason, USA’s strategy going into the offensive zone was to attempt to deke past the likes of Catherine Ward, which didn’t work for obvious reasons. I’m also wondering why they failed to elevate on Labonte so many times; it’s possible the scouting just wasn’t there compared to the work USA’s done on cracking Szabados.
The first period was strong and relatively even, statistically. My personal opinion is that Canada had a bit more jump, their scoring chances were a little better – Vetter for sure had to be sharp. But in the end it was scoreless, and shots/scoring chances were pretty much even.
USA had no momentum until late in the second. The Schleper-to-Knight goal totally changed Team USA’s game, and nearly all the last scoring chances (or all, but I can’t remember; at 23, I’m aged) were for Team USA.
But did they carry that into the third? NAW, SON. NO shots for USA for most of that period, and on top of that, three goals for Canada. First Agosta on the power play from a great Wickenheiser pass, then Wickenheiser, then Agosta again on a breakaway. With barely a minute left, Schleper scored for USA, but by then, it was too late. Canada won this one 3-2.
What I haven’t mentioned was Canada’s controversial second goal, where the whistle went and then the puck trickled past Vetter. The whistle probably shouldn’t have been blown, but it was, so that should’ve been no goal. But even though I’m ragingly for Team USA, I can’t be that mad about it. Bad refereeing happens; the refs also missed 2 blatant too many men on Team Canada. Team USA wouldn’t have pulled ahead anyway with how they were playing, and it’s crucial to not let a goal like that second Canada goal get in your head. Team USA was transparently deflated after that goal, and played completely flatly. The third goal, an Agosta breakaway, was not a surprise.
But anyone who thinks this is the full story of the tournament hasn’t been paying attention to either team. They’re likely to meet again, and hopefully USA will have it together better next time.
Team USA’s biggest weakness was by far defense. There was very little cohesion, especially compared to Canada’s defense; in the third period, Team USA was barely doing better than chasing pucks. Vetter bailed them out several times. That has to change.
Bright spots: Hilary Knight’s play was, obviously, outstanding. Her work to get the puck to Stack on a breakaway alone was stunning, and she and Stack each had 4 SOG. Brianna Decker drove play for Team USA, carrying the puck in quite a bit and keeping it in even through Team USA’s disorganization (though she also took 2 penalties, so that’s a double-edged sword). Jessie Vetter kept the US in the game even through a total lack of momentum. And Anne Schleper, of course, with her shot from the point leading to a Knight tip-in, and her goal late in the third, was the sneaky offense that kept USA in the game.
Again: this isn’t the complete story. These teams are almost guaranteed to meet again in the medal round. They’re both very good, evenly matched teams. The real test will be if Team USA can maintain cool heads next time, and not let a bad goal totally deflate them.
Raise your hand if you’re surprised that Canada and the US have been dominating the women’s hockey tournament so far! Just kidding, literally no one is surprised by this. The games kicked off February 8th, with USA getting a 3-1 win over Finland and Canada sending Switzerland packing, 5-0.
Switzerland has very little support for women’s hockey, and oh, does it show. Canada had 69 shots to Switzerland’s 14. That tells a pretty clear story on its own (though after the Olympics, we’ll be doing some statistical breakdowns of games), but it’s worth noting that Switzerland’s biggest problems were very clearly connected to their lack of practice as a cohesive team. In the defensive zone, they collapsed around whoever had the puck, leaving lanes wide open for Canada to pass in – and then score. In the offensive zone, Canada almost never had trouble clearing the puck; Switzerland just didn’t look like they knew what to do. The only bright spot for Switzerland so far has been goaltending Florence Schelling, who posted a .928 SV% for the CAN-SUI game. Not bad, Schelling. Sorry your name lends itself to the obvious, unfortunate pun.
Finland, in contrast, held the US to only 3 goals. Mind you, that first goal game at 0:53 in the first, from Hilary Knight – but overall, Noora Raty had a .930 SV%, and Finland in general had it together more than Switzerland. Finland is a legitimate contender in the sense that they are becoming competitive with the best teams in women’s hockey. Hopefully they’ll continue to develop and serve up an interesting game for the bronze – or even silver.
February 9th was Group B’s turn. Sweden won against Japan 1-0. Nana Fujimoto, the Japanese goaltender, put up an amazing performance against Sweden. Japan actually had a number of decent scoring chances, despite being shut out. They play an organized game that manages quite a bit of possession, considering what a new program they are. Mind, this will probably change once they play Canada or the USA, both of whom are more physical teams than Sweden, but it’s good to see two teams play such a tight game.
Russia – which has thrown support behind women’s hockey, boasting a professional hockey league of largely Russian players – shelled Germany 4-1. Russia has the elusive home ice advantage, if you believe in that kind of thing; at the very least, Russians turned out to support their women’s team in impressive numbers.
Players to watch: countries with less developed women’s hockey programs are bringing it in the goaltending department this tournament. Keep an especially close eye on Noora Raty, who’s playing behind a team that might actually help her carry them beyond bronze.
Hilary Knight has been a dominant presence for the US. On Canada’s side, Wickenheiser doesn’t appear to have rust on her, and Poulin is actually getting minutes, to the surprise of everyone familiar with Dineen. And, finally, Molly Schaus and Jessie Vetter are battling it out for the starting position in the medal games, with US coach Stone not naming a starter yet. That will be interesting to continue to watch.
It’s the New Year and both Team USA and Team Canada rosters have been announced. Since this is a blog of filthy Americans, we’ll be doing Team USA in depth now and Team Canada’s outstanding players/notes later – largely because, well, why talk about Canada when you could talk about America? Haha just kidding. (Not kidding.)
So, America. The US team has a wide variety of players, from veterans to young hotshots – and hotheads. How many people who don’t generally follow women’s hockey caught the many US/Canada brawls during the 7 exhibition games played for the Road to Sochi series? But while the fighting is fun, and this blogger lives in hope of seeing Kacey Bellamy break her stick in half and shank a Canadian, there’s a lot more to Team USA than fists o’ fury.