International Ice Hockey Federation

Miracles or no miracles?

Miracles or no miracles?

Who wins USA-RUS and CAN-FIN?

Published 02.04.2015 14:31 GMT+2 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Miracles or no miracles?
The 2015 IIHF World Women's Championship semi-finals feature all teams from Group A, and as usual, the U.S. and Canada are the favourites. Photos: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
When you think of Hollywood movies about sports confrontations between Americans and Russians, the first one that comes to mind is likely Miracle.

But let’s put it this way: if the 2004 movie about the plucky underdogs knocking off the defending champs at the 1980 Olympics is going to work as an analogy for Friday’s U.S.-Russia semi-final at the World Women’s Championship, there has to be a serious case of role reversal.

Russian coach Mikhail Chekhanov needs to find his inner Herb Brooks and convince his team they can knock off the mighty Americans – even though they just lost 9-2 to them in the round-robin.

It’s reminiscent of Mike Eruzione and Co. trying to find reasons to believe they could win in Lake Placid after dropping their last exhibition game 10-3 to the Soviets at Madison Square Garden. (Note the same seven-goal gap.)

Like the old-school Soviets of Viktor Tikhonov’s heyday, the Americans are simply bigger, stronger, faster, more talented, and better-organized. They have the tournament’s best power play (35 percent, 7-for-20) and penalty kill (zero goals allowed in three games). Their top line with Brianna Decker, Hilary Knight, and Kendall Coyne is on fire, combining for seven goals and 16 points so far.

The U.S. even has its own version of Vladislav Tretiak with four-time World Champion goaltender Jessie Vetter. (Only 29, she already has a trophy named after her: the 2010-launched Jessie Vetter Award for the best goalie in Wisconsin prep school hockey.)

The defending World Champions have played in 15 straight gold medal games. And the U.S. has defeated Russia nine straight times at the Women’s Worlds.

So Chekhanov might want to pull out this line from Miracle: “If we played ‘em 10 times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight.”

Really, is there any hope for the Russian women? They were outshot 49-5 in the round-robin blowout. Even if they fully subscribed to the old USSR motto of “don’t shoot unless you’ve set up the perfect shot,” they still would have lost even if they’d scored on every shot they took.

“When you play a team like America, you just have to think about your game plan all the time and make sure you don’t lose your concentration on the ice, because they’re so quick and they move the puck quickly,” said Iya Gavrilova. “For us, we just have to stay disciplined and capitalize on the chances that we have in the game.”

They’ll need some meaningful offence out of players besides sparkplugs like Gavrilova and Olga Sosina, who played the heroine in the 2-1 win over host Sweden. No other Russians have chipped in more than two points apiece.

And if starting goalie Maria Sorokina doesn’t bring her A game, this one could be over in a big hurry.

How about Finland facing the Canadians in the late semi-final? Do they have a shot at playing giant-killers and knocking off the four-time defending Olympic champions?

Given that the Finns have never beaten Canada in IIHF play, it’d be almost as much of a miracle as a Russian victory over the Americans. But Finnish head coach Pasi Mustonen sees reasons for optimism.

Despite losing 6-2 to Doug Derraugh’s dynamos in the round-robin, Finland outshot Canada in the first period and trailed only 2-1 until two quick second-period goals by Jennifer Wakefield and Courtney Birchard broke the game open.

Mustonen said of his opponents: “They were shaky. I’ve never seen them shaky against Finland before. We know it. The team feels it also. We didn’t have a good goalie game. If we’d had a really good goalie game in that game, I don’t know what could have happened.”

Mustonen added that if his team can improve on its line changes and cut down on neutral-zone turnovers, it’ll have a chance. Errors in both areas led to Canadian goals in the last meeting.

Featuring a new-look, youth-laden roster, Canada hasn’t been quite as dominant as in other years. They’ve allowed 70 shots on goal in three games, whereas the Americans have allowed just 28. Surrendering four goals on 12 twelve power play opportunities gives Canada a tournament-low penalty-killing percentage of 66.6.

But the big-game mentality of veterans like captain Marie-Philip Poulin – scorer of two Olympic gold medal game-winning goals – and Caroline Ouellette is impossible to overvalue in these situations.

One duo that’s been hot for Canada is Jennifer Wakefield and Natalie Spooner. The two Sochi gold medalists and former teammates with the CWHL’s Toronto Furies have contributed five points apiece (2-3-5).

“It helps with our confidence, knowing that we’ve played with these players before,” said Spooner. “Knowing that we can play together and have that chemistry on the ice, it’s really nice.”

For Finland, getting star forward Michelle Karvinen back against Switzerland was a huge boost. Due to illness, she missed some action, but the 2014 Olympic scoring leader notched the winning goal in the quarter-final. And, like Mustonen, she’s optimistic about facing Canada.

“Those are the games you look forward to,” Karvinen said. “You want to compete against the best in the world. I’m super-excited because I missed two games against the U.S. and Canada. I’m super-hungry.”

While Finland always brings strong goaltending – Meeri Raisanen has shone with a 1.95 GAA and 92.7 save percentage in the absence of superstar Noora Raty – and a handful of top forwards like Karvinen and Riikka Valila, Karvinen said she thinks that having defenders like captain Jenni Hiirikoski who can carry the puck out of their own zone has taken this squad to another level. The Finns aren’t necessarily just planning to play rope-a-dope for 60 minutes.

“We have very good confidence in our system,” said Karvinen. “We know that when we work together as a line, when we have a team like Canada or U.S., we’ve got to have a good day and we’ve got to be our best. It’s not impossible. We’ll see what happens.”

Will there be a Hollywood ending for Finland? Probably not. But the score will likely be tighter than in the U.S.-Russia semi-final.

Whatever happens in the two semi-finals, it’s a win for hockey. We either get another classic showdown between the two great North American archrivals – or we get an historic moment comparable to Sweden’s 2006 semi-final upset over the Americans in Turin.

And movie fans will remember what Herb Brooks says in Miracle: “Great moments are born from great opportunity.”


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