International Ice Hockey Federation

Group A ready to roll

Group A ready to roll

Can Finns or Russians surprise Canada or U.S.?

Published 11.02.2018 18:56 GMT+10 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Group A ready to roll
Despite the skills of Finland’s Noora Raty and Russia’s Olga Sosina, Canada’s Marie-Philip Poulin and the U.S.’s Hilary Knight will likely lead their teams to quarter-final byes. Photos: Matt Zambonin, Jeff Vinnick, Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
The four top-ranked women’s teams kick off their Olympic journey on 11 February at Kwandong Hockey Centre. Let’s take a closer look at Group A.

United States

The U.S. tops the IIHF Women’s World Ranking after winning the last four Worlds (2013, 2015-17). However, there is an ache that won’t go away until this superpower captures its first Olympic gold since the inaugural 1998 Nagano tournament. In America, three silvers (2002, 2010, 2014) and a bronze (2006) don’t get you on a Wheaties box.

No other team boasts more pure speed and creativity. The long-time top line epitomizes that with Kendall Coyne’s sprint queen flair, Brianna Decker’s scrappy smarts, and Hilary Knight’s pure power game. Despite an incredible resume that includes leading the Women’s Worlds in goals four times, Knight, 28, is eager to atone for the Sochi nightmare in her third Olympics. In 2014, she was in the box when Canada completed its miraculous late comeback to win the final 3-2 in overtime.

Clutch forward Alex Carpenter and hard-shooting defender Megan Bozek – both Sochi veterans – were cut from coach Robb Stauber’s PyeongChang roster, stunning the hockey world. Will shuffling the deck pay off at this late stage?

Vocal, gritty veterans like captain Meghan Duggan and the Lamoureux twins will do their best to welcome newcomers like 18-year-old blueliner Cayla Barnes and keep everyone focused on themselves rather than the outside noise. The U.S. still has the tournament’s best D-corps with Kacey Bellamy and Megan Keller, and it’ll be interesting to watch which of its three talented young netminders – Alex Rigsby, Nicole Hensley, or Maddie Rooney – takes charge in the playoffs.

The American women accomplished huge things in 2017. They won the Women’s Worlds on home ice in Plymouth after negotiating a new deal with USA Hockey for more equitable treatment. After the tragic passing of USA Hockey executive Jim Johannson in January, both the U.S. women’s and men’s teams will be motivated to honour his legacy. It’s 2018 now, and it’s time to shine.

Canada

In 1904, Canadian prime minister Wilfred Laurier predicted that the 20th century would belong to Canada. He was overoptimistic, but the 21st century has belonged to Canada in Olympic women’s hockey. There’s a swagger that comes with four straight golds in Salt Lake, Turin, Vancouver, and Sochi, a confidence in your ability to deliver on the biggest stage.

Coming off seven months of centralization in Calgary, the Canadians have no significant weaknesses. Captain Marie-Philip Poulin, just 26, scored the gold-medal winner at the last two Olympics. 2010 MVP Meghan Agosta, Jennifer Wakefield and Natalie Spooner are other veteran forwards who’ll key the attack.

Canada’s solid, two-way defence lacks a Geraldine Heaney-style catalyst, but Laura Fortino can quarterback the power play effectively, and two-time Olympic champion Meaghan Mikkelson brings a calming presence. Top goalie Shannon Szabados, who posted the best GAA and save percentage in 2010 and 2014, remains sharp at 31.

What could go wrong? Overconfidence, a “we always win the Olympics” complacency. Beating the archrival Americans in five out of six pre-tournament exhibitions will mean nothing if coach Laura Schuler’s charges don’t win gold on 22 February.

Finland

The Finns are perennial bronze-medal favourites, coming third in 1998 and 2010. Sometimes, they underachieve under the Olympic spotlight: witness their dismal fifth-place Sochi finish. However, after taking bronze at both the 2015 and 2017 Women’s Worlds, innovative coach Pasi Mustonen expects a medal in PyeongChang.

His leaders bring experience and skill. Named Best Goalie at four Women’s Worlds, Noora Raty joins 44-year-old playmaker Riikka Valila – an IIHF Hall of Famer – as a fourth-time Olympian. Diminutive captain Jenni Hiirikoski will skate till she drops on defence in all situations.

With Mustonen promoting more aggressive puck pressure than past Finnish coaches, what may make or break this squad’s hopes is whether Michelle Karvinen – the 2014 Olympic scoring leader with seven points – gets enough offensive support from gifted youngsters like Petra Nieminen (18) and Susanna Tapani (24). Both Nieminen and Tapani scored in Finland’s 4-3 upset over Canada at last year’s Women’s Worlds. It was the first time Finland’s ever beaten the Canadians in IIHF competition.

Olympic Athletes from Russia

Sochi wasn’t kind to the hosts. The Russian women fell short on and off the ice and didn’t medal. Now the OAR team faces a different kind of pressure. Can this youthful roster crack the podium in neutral uniforms without hearing their traditional anthem once?

Only six Russian players are back from the 2014 Olympic squad. The key returnee up front is Olga Sosina, a nifty puckhandler whose shootout goal gave Russia its last IIHF medal (bronze at the 2016 Women’s Worlds). At 25, she’s already played two Olympics and eight Women’s Worlds.

Among the 17 Winter Games debutantes, slick 19-year-old forward Fanuza Kadirova, who potted a team-high three goals at last year’s Worlds, is a face to watch. So is 23-year-old sniper Lyudmila Belyakova, the NWHL’s first Russian back in 2015/16.

Yet with no blueline scoring to speak of and beleaguered goaltending, the OAR’s best chance for Group A points is against Finland on 15 February. In four tries, the Russian women have never won an Olympic medal.

Format

The teams and groups were seeded according to the 2016 IIHF Women’s World Ranking. The tournament includes the top-five nations, two qualifiers and host Korea. The top-four ranked teams are seeded in Group A, the other teams in Group B.

The two top-seeded teams from Group A will receive Quarter-Final Round byes, thus moving automatically to the Semi-Finals. The Quarter-Finals will be played between 3A-2B and 4A-1B. The winner of each Quarter-Final moves onto the Semi-Finals.

The winners of these games advance to the semis with 1A taking on the winner of 4A-1B and 2A playing the winner of 3A-2B.

The winner of each Semi-Final game will move onto the Gold Medal Game, while the losers will play in the Bronze Medal Game.

Predictions

Unless the Finns play over their heads and either the U.S. or Canada has an off-day against the blue-and-white women, the North American superpowers will likely finish 1-2 in Group A for quarter-final byes. All-time, Russian Olympic teams have been outscored 19-0 by Canada, 13-0 by the U.S., and 9-1 by Finland, so an OAR upset is dubious.

Do we already know who will make the gold medal game? Well, American author Mark Twain allegedly once said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” The 2006 Olympics proved that blithely assuming a Canada-U.S. final is dangerous. In the Turin semi-finals, the Swedes edged the Americans 3-2 in a shootout shocker, and wound up with silver. (And by the way, that Twain quote is bogus.)

 

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