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.
Team USA and Team Canada earned a pair of 5-0 victories in the semifinals to punch their tickets to the Olympic gold medal game. Team USA triumphed easily over Finland, who committed some early defensive lapses. Team Canada went up 1-0 and then 2-0 over the Olympic athletes from Russia in the first and second period, but Russia was playing relatively well until the third when the dam broke for the Canadian offense.
Finland and the Olympic athletes from Russia will contest the bronze medal at 2:40 AM Eastern time on Wednesday, February 21. At 11:10 PM Eastern that same day, Team USA and Team Canada will play for gold -- again.
Classification games begin tonight at 10:10 PM Eastern with Sweden versus the unified Korean team to determine 7th and 8th place. At 2:40 AM tomorrow morning, Switzerland will face Japan to determine 5th and 6th place.
While other programs have improved by leaps and bounds in recent years, the programs at the top have continued to improve as well. The United States and Canada are still the best teams in the world. Since 2003, they have merely swapped 1st and 2nd place in the IIHF World Rankings a few times. The narrative is well-known. Team USA has won a lot recently at the IIHF Women's World Championships but hasn't been able to replicate that success at the Olympics, where Canada has won every gold medal since 1998. This will be the sixth ever gold medal game in women's hockey at the Olympics. It's going to be a thing of beauty and will likely go down in history as one of the greatest hockey games ever played, much like every final game between these two nations. It's not just good hockey: Team USA versus Team Canada in women's hockey is considered to be the best hockey.
The teams beneath them keep getting close to competing with them, but they haven't quite been successful. Aside from the United States falling to bronze in Torino in 2006 (and a surprise silver medal for Sweden), everything has more or less gone as expected in women's hockey. Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland have all had very strong outings in recent years internationally.
The Russian team had a lot of turnover and change recently and has started using a much younger roster. They didn't win any games in Group A this Olympics, but had a strong showing against Switzerland in the quarterfinals, which came as a bit of a surprise considering how solid the Swiss had been in Group B. But, Russia's extremely talented offense finally had their Olympic coming out party, sparked in large part by Anna Shokhina, who got the team started with a 5-on-3 shorthanded goal. The Swiss actually led at the midway point of the second period, but Russia executed a swift comeback in the third, and never looked back.
It's hard to say when or if the change will come that will see Team USA and Team Canada faced with a real challenge to their dominance at the international level. Finland has been knocking on their doors recently and did beat Canada in preliminaries at Worlds this year. But at the moment, the next Olympic cycle will probably figure much the same way. The NCAA program in the United States is so strong, and while it continues to develop European players, it mainly provides a superior devleopmental pipeline for Americans and Canadians. Centralization likely factors in as well, since both the American and Canadian national team players train in residency together for the year leading up to the Olympics. This likely gives them a major competitive edge, and no other programs in the world are doing this quite the same way or at nearly the same level.
Tomorrow, we will put out a quick podcast to discuss the details of the gold medal game and perhaps some specifics of where we think the other teams are after this tournament. Right now, enjoy the respite. Watch some ice dance and some curling or any other sport you like (though that might stress you out more).
Filed under: ice hockey; pyeongchang; 2018 olympics; team usa; team canada; olympic athletes from russia; team switzerland; team japan; team sweden; team korea; team finland
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