Women's hockey preliminaries begun in the early hours of Saturday morning Eastern time with Group B play. Switzerland took an 8-0 victory over the unified Korean team, while a much closer game ended in a 2-1 victory for Sweden over Japan.
The best player on the Korean squad seemed to be Park Yoon-Jung, sister of US Olympian Hannah Brandt, who led her team in ice time with 24:08 and was only a -2 despite the high-scoring affair for the Swiss. Shin So-Jung played all 60 minutes for her team in net. 19-year-old Northeastern University commit Alina Müller scored 4 goals for Switzerland, with 2 goals each coming from Lara Stalder (University of Minnesota-Duluth/Linköping HC) and Phoebe Staenz (Yale/SDE HF). Florence Schelling earned the shutout, making 8 saves on 8 shots credited to the Koreans.
For Sweden, Fanny Rask buried the first goal of the game just two minutes in. Rask would amass 5 shots throughout the game to tie shot totals from Japan's Chiho Osawa and Hanae Kubo. It was Rui Ukita who would tie the game in the second 1-1 (on a pass from Kubo), but Sara Hjalmarsson would score the winning goal, earning an assist point for her goaltender Sara Grahn, no less. The game ended with some penalty calls to the Swedes for roughing, cross-checking, and an illegal hit, but the Japanese were unable capitalize on any power play opportunities. Shots were 24-30 in favor of Sweden. Grahn posted a 0.958 save percentage and Nana Fujimoto a 0.933. These teams seem closer than ever before in their skill level, and always make for exciting hockey, but their biggest test will definitely be Switzerland in group play.
In Group A play, Team USA faced Finland and Canada faced the Olympic athletes from Russia.
Team USA got off to a slow start, as they were stifled throughout the first period despite some strong puck possession by Finland's aggressive defensive strategy. They also failed to capitalize on a power play, and Finland got characteristically excellent play from goaltender Noora Räty. This would set up a great sequence for Finland in the waning seconds of the first period, as Petra Nieminen found Venla Hovi in a soft spot right out in front, and Hovi rocketed the quick shot to beat US goaltender Maddie Rooney for her first allowed goal in her Olympic debut.
The second period marked the turnaround for the Americans as they finally started using their speed against Finland's defensive coverage -- crashing past defenders to gain the zone rather than worrying about "clean" entries, for example, and getting pucks moving on Räty. The tying goal would come from Monique Lamoureux-Morando, who came in alone from the corner and skated through the crease. Räty made the initial save, but Lamoureux was able to pick up the rebound and push it to the back of the net.
Shortly thereafter, with the United States on a power play, Team USA used their speed again to spread out Finland's defense, and Hilary Knight found Kendall Coyne for a one-timer with Räty committed completely to the other side of her net.
Finland was outshot by a margin of 21-5 in the second period, and despite a strong third for them, it was the point of no return. Dani Cameranesi buried an empty net goal to give Team USA a 3-1 final score.
A few hours later, Team Canada began their dismantling of the Olympic athletes from Russia. Ann-Renée Desbiens got the start for the Canadians, facing Nadezhda Morozova at the other end. Both goaltenders would be perfect in the first period, with Morozova having to make 15 saves to Desbiens' 5, including many point-blank saves on Natalie Spooner. It was a strong start for the Russians, who also showed two perfect penalty kills and kept Canada off the board.
Rebecca Johnston would break through early in the second, though, and there was no looking back for the Canadians. Johnston buried a perfect pass from Brianne Jenner behind the net, and just a few minutes later, set up a tip shot by Haley Irwin on the power play that would put Canada up 2-0.
Russia forced a physical game leading to several penalties for illegal checks on both sides, but it was an even-strength goal that put Mélodie Daoust on the board from right in the slot. Johnston would add another goal midway through the third on a 2-player advantage assisted by Brigette Lacquette. Daoust also got her second of the game just two minutes later. Despite being held off the board for the opening frame, the Canadians pulled out a convincing 5-0 win.
In Group A play, each team looked much like we expected them to look. Team USA's extremely skilled forwards poured on and managed to wear out a Finnish team that is both offensively and defensively capable, but did not have enough in the tank to hold them off for a full 60 minutes. While veteran Noora Räty was transcendent at times, 20-year-old Maddie Rooney was reliable and made some big saves herself.
Team Finland gets progressively better every year, and always seem to start strong against higher ranked opponents. If they can maintain that performance for 60 minutes against teams like USA and Canada, they will be a force to be reckoned with. They really are not far away from challenging for a medal other than the bronze.
Team Russia is extraordinarily young and they have a lot to be proud of, especially from their first period against Canada. But the powerhouse Canadian team made short work of them once they broke the dam.
The main difference I see so far between the expected gold medal contenders, Team Canada and Team USA, on paper is that Team Canada is spreading their ice time out much more evenly overall. Arguably they had the much easier matchup against Russia, so Robb Stauber leaning on his best players for more minutes in a tighter game makes sense. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how Finland and Canada match up against each other -- that is to say, if the Finnish team gives the Canadians as much trouble in the early going. And Team USA should use the game against the Olympic athletes from Russia to play more with line combinations and give young players like Kali Flanagan and Cayla Barnes some more responsibility and time on the ice.
Group B play resumes at 2:40 AM Eastern Monday with Switzerland versus Japan, and 7:10 AM Eastern with Sweden versus the unified Korean team. At 2:40 AM Tuesday, Canada and Finland meet in Group A, followed by USA versus the Olympic athletes from Russia at 7:10 AM Eastern.
(Photo: USA Hockey/Twitter)