Canadian will, U.S. skill
Canadian will, U.S. skill
Which team will play to its strengths in final?
Will the trends continue in Saturday’s gold medal game?
Coach Ken Klee’s team has scored a whopping 30 goals in four games – twice as many as Canada, its gold medal opponent. They have 10 power play goals to Canada’s three. They have a perfect penalty kill, while the Canadians have allowed four goals while shorthanded for a 73.3 percent success rate.
Goaltending is about the only area in which the two North American archrivals look equal, with six goals allowed apiece.
And although Canada’s save percentage (93.2) looks snazzier than the U.S.’s (83.3), that statistic loses some of its lustre when you consider that the Americans have only allowed 36 shots on goal compared to Canada at 89.
The Americans dominated Canada in their tournament-opening 4-2 win at the Malmo Isstadion.
So should we just dispense with the gold medal game altogether and hand first place over to the Americans, the defending champs from 2013? Not so fast.
Hockey is an emotional sport, and the results aren’t determined purely by data. The Canadians pride themselves on being able to rise to the occasion even when they haven’t been firing on all cylinders.
“I think there’s always that edge,” said Canada’s Natalie Spooner. “I know it’s always a physical game when we play against them, and we’ll be trying to shut down some of their speed and get pucks on their net. So I think it’s going to be an exciting game, and fast-paced. It’ll be a grind.”
The fact that Hockey Canada’s new centennial commemorative book is entitled It’s Our Game reflects the determination with which Canadian players are expected to approach the quest for a championship – as well as the pressure they’re accustomed to facing to a greater degree than the Americans.
Unquestionably, Canada has skill: just look at Spooner’s beautiful individual effort on her second goal against Finland in the semi-finals.
But in recent years, it’s become more apparent that the U.S. is breeding more swift, high-octane talent, while Canada is becoming more reliant on its mental toughness for its success.
In Malmo, the Americans have rarely been pushed at all, whereas the Canadians’ battle level was tested at times in their round-robin and semi-final victories over Finland.
After defeating the Finns 3-0 in the semi-final, Canadian coach Doug Derraugh said: “I think it’s good in some ways that we had a tough game tonight so that we are prepared for tomorrow’s game, which certainly is going to be tough for us.”
Adding to the intrigue is the element of a rematch from the 2014 Olympics.
The Canadians shocked the U.S. last year in Sochi by rallying late to take the gold medal game 3-2 in overtime. Marie-Philip Poulin scored the tying goal and the OT winner there, repeating her heroics from Vancouver 2010 and the captain stepped up again versus Finland with the semi-final winner on Friday.
Spooner and her linemates Jennifer Wakefield and Brianne Jenner – Sochi returnees all – have been integral to the Canadian attack in Malmo.
Yet the Americans have more players back from Sochi, whereas older Canadian greats like Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford, and Meghan Agosta are not here to provide the “been there, done that” factor.
“We have a lot of experience under our belt,” said the U.S.’s Brianna Decker, who is tied with linemate Hilary Knight for the tournament scoring lead (10 points). “We have a lot of older players. And the rookies are playing like veterans right now, and that’s what we need. And that’s how we’re going to be successful tomorrow.”
The U.S. has won five out of the last seven IIHF World Women’s Championships. The good times started for the Stars and Stripes when Angela Ruggiero’s shootout goal gave them a 1-0 victory over Canada in the 2005 gold medal game in Sweden.
However, in contrast, the Americans have repeatedly wilted under the bright Olympic spotlight. In fact, Canada hasn’t lost an Olympic women’s hockey game to its southern rival since falling 3-1 in the 1998 gold medal game in Nagano. It’s hard to believe, but true.
The U.S. couldn’t take advantage in Salt Lake City in 2002 when referee Stacy Livingston called eight consecutive penalties against Canada, and fell 3-2 in the home-ice final. They shockingly lost in a shootout to underdog Sweden in the 2006 Olympic semi-finals. They were blanked 2-0 in the 2010 final in Vancouver.
The good news for American fans? The IIHF World Women’s Championship isn’t the Olympics.
It’s a great tournament. It’s the same players, officials, ice surface, and so on. It is the biggest prize that female hockey players can win this year.
But there just isn’t the same fishbowl effect with media, fans, and general frenzy that you get at the Olympics. Based on history, that lesser degree of hoopla probably plays to the Americans’ advantage in the final.
With the road to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea well underway, an American gold medal here would be an important step toward putting the nightmare of Sochi to rest. It’s the most likely and logical outcome on Saturday. But you don’t ever want to count out Canada.
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