The National Women's Hockey League is currently in its offseason following its sixth year of play, but things have been anything but normal over the past few weeks. A lot has transpired recently, and it appears as though this could be the tip of the iceberg.
Finland 4, Canada 3
The Finns beat Canada for the first time at the World Championship Saturday night, and we may be able to look back at this as a turning point in Finnish hockey. They certainly seemed to be ushering in a new era, as both players and coach Pasi Mustonen talked about the win in fairly staid terms.
Mustonen, who's been coaching the team for three years now, is the engineer of the turn-around. He said that he personally was not surprised by the win and that he wouldn't be treating it any differently than other wins.
However, he knows the importance of the mental game in hockey, and he knows that his players clearing this hurdle will make a huge difference in their confidence.
Mustonen has made numerous changes to the systems and style of Finland's play, but maybe most importantly, Finland has gone from playing a somewhat passive, defensive-based game to one that attacks throughout the ice. Their game-winning goal was the result of putting pressure on the Canadian defense deep in the zone and forcing a turnover.
"We weren't sitting back, we actually pressured them all the time -- skate, skate, skate," goaltender Noora Räty said. "Of course four goals is huge for us -- usually we get one or two."
The win was a long time coming for this program, and Räty said she felt that it had been in reach in recent years.
"Us older players, we've known it's close, but we've just been close," Raty said. "Now we finally did it, so now we know we can do it -- we're not just saying we can beat them."
The Canadians seem to be at a loss to explain their 0-2 start to the tournament. Captain Marie-Philip Poulin seemed like she was in shock and trying to puzzle it out as she stood in the Mixed Zone following the game, but she didn't seem to come up with any answers, only repeating "we have to find a way" over and over.
Brianne Jenner didn't have much more insight, but said the results aren't for a lack of trying.
"We're giving it our all right now, but we're not clicking. We're just struggling right now," she said. "I think we're gonna find a way to come back, but it doesn't feel good right now."
While Canada normally plays a style of hockey that's crisp and clean and makes it look effortless, so far at this tournament, the whole team looks a bit like they've never played together before.
Rebecca Johnston said the team needs to worry less about substance or style and focus more on playing gritty and getting a "dirty goal."
"I think we have to come back on Monday and really come out for 60 minutes, not 40, not 20," Johnston said. "We need to focus on playing our game and not letting them get to us, or this loss get to us. We have to forget about it, but move on and learn from it."
Riikka Välilä, Again
There's no shortage of heroes and inspiration to be found this week at the WWC, but not enough people are talking about the amazing play of Finland's 43-year-old Riikka Välilä.
Välilä first played for Finland in 1989. She retired, was enshrined in the IIHF Hall of Fame, started a family -- and then decided to come back to the sport after 10 years off.
This is no token comeback or just a ceremonial return to the ice. She's not on the team out of some misguided sense of honor and she's not there for moral support. She led the tournament in faceoff percentage and was Finland's lone goal-scorer on day one. She said she wouldn't want to be on the team if she didn't feel she was contributing on the ice. Mustonen doesn't seem like the sentimental type, so it's impossible to think he'd have her on the squad if he didn't believe she belonged there.
Välilä herself talked about a past where the team might only have one or two lines of players and it would be exhausting to play so many shifts. The depth of the Finnish team is one of the reasons they're doing so well. And it shows that Välilä isn't there to fill the roster. She competed for -- and earned -- her spot.
She was reluctant to talk about Pyeongchang or anything further down the road, but she said there's always a reason or excuse to stay on for just one more year.
"It's not so easy to quit. First it was Worlds in Sweden [in 2015]. I live in Sweden, it's my second home. Then it was Worlds in Canada [in 2016], which is the best place to play hockey. Then it was Worlds in the US [this year] which is the second best place to play hockey. And then it's the Olympics [in 2018]. And then it's Worlds in Finland [in 2019]. It's not easy to quit. But I'm 43 years old. I have to take it one season at a time," she said.
When I told Välilä that I thought she was inspiring, she seemed to get a bit bashful, but said she hoped that she could help encourage and show other older players that it's possible. She referenced Finland's own Teemu Selänne, who played until age 43, and Jaromir Jagr, who's still playing at 45, saying that they have helped inspire her to keep going and hopes she can fill that role for someone else.
United States 7, Russia 0
The Americans continued their roll through the opening rounds with a win over Russia that solidified that they are prepared to win this tournament.
Team USA is a stark contrast to Team Canada at this point. Everything that's a struggle for Canada is happening with ease for the Americans. They have executed their game plan nearly flawlessly in the first two games. They're pushing pace; they're finding lanes; they're starting their attack in the defensive zone and building momentum down the ice. And they're as loose and comfortable as can be.
The top line of Brianna Decker, Kendall Coyne, and Hilary Knight combined for four goals and six assists in Saturday's game. Decker is leading the tournament with three goals and two assists. Though it's to be expected that this line will deliver, the way these three play together is always impressive.
"It's kind of like our sixth sense. We know where [each other are on the ice] and we love playing with each other and I think that's what makes us successful," said Coyne.
Keep It Simple, Sweetie
Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson also scored two goals on Saturday and coach Robb Stauber was happy to see not only contributions from another part of his lineup, but from Lamoureux-Davidson specifically.
She had shown frustration after the Americans' win over Canada and Stauber said he talked to her about keeping things simple and going to the net instead of giving in to a tendency to do too much or over-handle the puck. There may have been no more emphatic way to "go to the net" than Lamoureux-Davidson did with her first goal, a no-doubt slap shot from the faceoff dot that Stauber quipped might still be moving, had the net not been there to stop it.
The Minnesota-Duluth sophomore netminder got her first ever senior team start, and it obviously went well. She's a calm kid and Stauber said that can sometimes be disconcerting to the players, but he likes Rooney's demeanor.
There are a limited number of high-level, international games, so even amid this tournament, Stauber is making strategic choices to test his players and find out if his staff's instincts are proven out in game situations. That will make creating an Olympic roster that much easier. For Rooney, the thought behind starting her against Russia was "We think she'll be fine."
Rooney said she was a bit nervous, but felt prepared. Even still, nothing really prepares you for the pace of the game.
"Since they are so fast, you have to stay focused in on every play. You have to make every movement crisp," she said.
So far, so good.
Russian Lessons Learned
Despite the lopsided score, Iya Gavrilova said she was fairly happy with the way the Russians played. They had a few mental lapses and the US capitalized on them.
"It's a good lesson for us to play the full [sixty] minutes. Mentally we just have to learn from that and move on. We understand they are a great team. There's so much talent on that team. You can't be hard on yourself. You do your best and you move on from that," she said.
The Russians brought in a new coach who has shaken up the roster and made some changes in the program. It's been an adjustment by Gavrilova, who likes where the team is at.
"Our coach changed and a new coach brings new stuff to the team. It's a natural process for any sport. I feel like we adjusted pretty well. It's working. So far, so good," she said. "We played in the States in September against a lot of these players. [Team Russia] learned from those games. It's just staying calm and sticking to the game plan and stay patient and don't get too frustrated because it's a process."
Quote of the day, from Kendall Coyne when asked what she brings to USA's top line:
"I have to bring the speed. Not the size."
Germany 2, Czech Republic 1
The Finland win overshadowed it, but the surprise of the tournament so far has to be Germany. They join the US as the only undefeated teams. I -- wrongly -- thought they'd be playing to stave off relegation, and instead have shown a lot of resilience.
They've gotten stellar goalkeeping, and on Saturday were outshot significantly by the Czechs -- but were able to endure the onslaught and take advantage of their few offensive opportunities.
The two wins should be enough for all of us to stop asking about the disappointment of failing to qualify for Pyeongchang. The Germans have put that behind them and are focused on writing the next chapter.
The sting of that loss seems to have forged a bond with this team. They trust each other completely, they deflect compliments onto each other, and they are united in working to improve the program for the future.
On Saturday, the defense was crucial in keeping the game close, blocking shots and giving Ivonne Schroder some relief in net.
When the Germans put out a roster with 10 forwards and 10 defenders, none of us quite knew what to make of it. Certainly they've been playing defensive-minded hockey and their low shot count adds credence, but they didn't completely forgo their offense. On Friday, Manela Anwander scoffed at the idea that Germany was only going to be defensive-minded
"The team has a positive feeling and everyone gives 100%. We were focused on winning that game. It's not necessarily defense even if it says so on paper," she said.
It's been two tough, close losses for the Czechs. No one comes to a tournament looking to lose, regardless of the circumstances, and Aneta Ledlova didn't have much to say other than "it's bad."
One loss in overtime, one loss late in the game, and the Czechs find themselves in a hole. They're a young team and that should make them resilient, but first they have to curb their disappointment.
"It's bad. We lost two games, one in overtime. We are sad. We wanted to play our best and show we can score goals," said Ledlova.
Runner-up for quote of the day, from Germany coach Benjamin Hinterstocker when asked about transitioning from coaching men to women
"Too much thought given to women versus men. Hockey is hockey. It's five on five on the ice and it's passing, shooting, and scoring. We need to think bigger than just men or women."
Sweden 2, Switzerland 1
The Swedes bounced back with a win on Saturday. The game was girtty and chippy and forced both teams to dig a bit deeper. The Swedes capitalized when they needed to, scoring the game-winning goal on a 5-on-3 power play in the third period.
Phoebe Staenz said the Swiss were looking forward to the day off to watch tape, learn, and sort of reset heading into the final opening round game. She was actually happier with their play in the loss and was happy that they'd managed to end up with 1-1 record at this point.
"Overall, [it was] a disappointing game because it didn't go our way. [But] it definitely could have gone our way. Maybe in a way we needed this. I don't think we started out the game against the Czech Republic very well, so this loss might give us enough fire to go into the Germany game and move on into the quarterfinals," she said. "We got the win; that was good, so we need to step up. In a way, we did, in our own game, we did step up. Sometimes it just doesn't go your way. We're trying to make another step up into the Germany game so we're ready going into quarterfinals."
For the Swedes, the win puts them in a good position for their third game and hopefully gives them the momentum they need to carry them through to the quarterfinals.
Lisa Johnsson scored the game-winner on a play she said she's very comfortable with at the near post on the power play. She was excited for the win, but more for the position it put the Swedes in than anything else. The team will take the mental bump of confidence, but they are already looking ahead to their game with Germany on Monday.
Upcoming schedule for Monday, April 3
- 12:00 PM Eastern - Germany versus Switzerland (Group B)
- 3:30 PM Eastern - Canada versus Russia (Group A)
- 6:00 PM Eastern - Sweden versus Czech Republic (Group B)
- 7:30 PM Eastern - United States versus Finland (Group A)
Filed under: 2017 women's world championship; team usa; team germany; team canada; team finland; team czech republic; team russia; team switzerland; team sweden; ice hockey
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