PHF Playoff Preview: Isobel Cup Final
Previewing the 2023 Isobel Cup Final between the Premier Hockey Federation's Minnesota Whitecaps & Toronto Six.
A late third-period effort and Laura Zimmermann's overtime goal sent Switzerland to the semifinals following a shocking 3-2 win over ROC. Russia (ROC) dominated much of the game and limited Switzerland's chances through the opening forty minutes of play, but the Swiss rallied back for a critical victory.
Yelizaveta Rodnova opened the scoring just 1:18 in, capitalizing on a rebound in front of the net. After a successful penalty kill, ROC doubled their lead on a high shot from Ilona Markova. That tally prompted a goaltending change, as Saskia Maurer came in to relieve Andrea Brändli.
The scoring frenzy quieted, but the Swiss faced consecutive penalty kills followed by a tough second period where ROC players absolutely peppered the net. It wasn't until the midway point of the third period that Switzerland finally shook off the doldrums. Evelina Raselli broke Valeria Merkusheva's shutout bid with a backhand shot after a pass from Dominique Ruegg.
With one goal on the board, it was a new game for the Swiss. They were initially unable to capitalize on several power-play opportunities, then pulled their netminder to take a two-player advantage. The extra boost worked in their favor, as Phoebe Stänz tied the game with 2:16 to play on a shot from just outside the top of the faceoff circle.
Less than eight minutes into overtime, Zimmermann notched the game-winning goal off a beautiful pass from Sinja Leemann, shocking the Russians and sending her Swiss team to the semifinals for the first time since 2012.
The United States rebounded nicely after their preliminary round loss to Canada with a decisive 10-2 win over Japan in the quarterfinals. Fourteen different American skaters recorded at least a point; Hilary Knight, Alex Carpenter, and Grace Zumwinkle each scored two goals.
Team USA scored five goals in a span of 14:23 in the first period to take a commanding lead entering intermission. Japanese netminder Nana Fujimoto faced 20 shots in the opening frame alone, as the Americans found chance after chance to put the puck on net from all around the ice. Despite the offensive attack, Akane Shiga found the back of the net twice in the first period to keep the Japanese in the game.
The middle frame was a quieter one, as the Americans added two goals to take a 7-2 lead. Japan swapped goaltenders, pulling Fujimoto (33 saves on 40 shots) in favor of Akane Konishi. Team USA elected to do the same to begin the third period, bringing in Nicole Hensley. Alex Cavallini faced just 10 shots in the 40 minutes she played, making eight saves.
The Americans added three more goals in the third period en route to the double-digit victory. Hensley was perfect on the two shots she faced, while Konishi made 18 saves on 21 shots faced. Overall, it was a well-produced offensive victory for Team USA. Only six American skaters failed to register a point. Of note, Kelly Pannek played just 2:37 (all in the first period) and was injured. Jincy Dunne didn’t see any action in the first forty minutes and skated 5:24 in the third period.
If you watched this game, you got to see the Canadian team play exactly the game they had to play to get to the next stage of this tournament, but you also had to watch Team Germany suffer from having a drastically shortened bench and getting verbally disrespected by Rod Black through 60 minutes plus intermissions and commercial bumpers. Rod took every opportunity to talk about the German team as inferior, referred to this game as "conditioning" for the Canadians, and seemed to barely know the names of any German players.
If TSN takes this tournament seriously they will not ask Rod Black to do play-by-play in 2023. It's fine for Canadian homerism if that's what you're into but the purpose of airing the IIHF Women's World Championship (to, I might add, an international audience) is to showcase high-level international women's hockey. Cheryl Pounder, to her credit, spent a lot of time during the game trying to point out what Germany was doing well and calling attention to smaller details of play that might escape an average observer in what was an overwhelmingly tilted game. It's not very often that you have to broadcast a game where one team is outshot by a margin of roughly 50 to 3, but if you must, the least you can do is show a little fucking respect.
The Germans were decimated by injuries and found themselves without Sonja Weidenfelder, Laura Kluge, Nina Christof, and Carina Strobel. They went with netminder Franziska Albl for the start rather than their usual backstop Jennifer Harß (who is also apparently dealing with an injury). When Lena Dusterhoft was ejected in the second period for an illegal hit, that reduced their bench even further. While a win against Canada was unlikely regardless of their lineup, they were certainly not positioned to play their best hockey. Since they had to play the game, though, they did what they had to do, which was go through the motions and generally try not to risk further injury (Dusterhoft's bad hit on Sarah Fillier notwithstanding).
The Canadians of course had a field day with this and scored 7 goals.
Your goal-scorers are Ashton Bell (her first of the tournament), Natalie Spooner (twice), Brianne Jenner, Marie-Philip Poulin, Mélodie Daoust, and Sarah Fillier.
Team Germany let Albl sit in the third period and gave the net over to Sandra Abstreiter who made more saves in 20 minutes than Albl had had to make in 40. Really not much to say about this one! Canada is a good team.
There is one area where the Canadian team has not been strong and it's on the power play, where they had not scored a single goal all tournament. It took the five-minute major penalty in the third period of this game for them to break through on a great play by Poulin to get the puck to Daoust. All credit to Abstreiter who didn't make it easy for them, either.
Every now and then there is a game like this that is a perfect exemplar of how much the international women's hockey landscape has changed just in the last few years. The Czech Republic owned much of the play in the first period, outshooting Finland and playing a game that highlighted all of their strengths. While their crisp passing and shoot-at-will offense isn't new, their physical play and aggressive forecheck is. Tomas Pacina has turned this team into a much more cohesive unit, a unit that knows how to win puck battles, intercept passes, and give just as good as they get along the boards. This game exceeded expectations and kept an absolutely breakneck pace through 60 minutes. On top of that, we got a great goaltending battle between Klára Peslarová and Anni Keisala. What more could you possibly ask for in a semifinal matchup between the best team in Group B and a defending silver medalist?
Considering the difference in ranking, a casual observer might not have expected it to be this close, but this is how the margins have changed in women's hockey in this Olympic cycle. It was that close.
And considering the quality of goaltending, it's disappointing that the difference-maker in this one was a complete anomaly. 16-year-old Sanni Vanhanen took a tripping penalty in the second period. As the Czechs were working their power play, the puck ended up careening into center ice as Vanhanen was coming out of the box. Vanhanen's breakaway shot initially appeared to be saved by Peslarová, but it bounced and ended up in the back of the net, possibly off of Tereza Vanišová who was trying to backcheck on Vanhanen and strip the puck away.
That odd goal doesn't take away from the absolutely lights-out performance by Keisala who kept her team in it the rest of the way, making 29 saves for the shutout. Nevertheless, Finland looked somewhat disconnected and taken aback by the Czech team's energetic performance. It's a big win, but it is punctuated with a question mark. The Czech team is light years ahead of where they were just a handful of years ago, and it's a hard tempo to match. Finland has seemed to find their rhythm only in fits and starts this year. Theirs is a well-earned victory still clouded by mistakes and flukes – little things, like the puck hopping over Jenni Hiirikoski's stick at the point on the power play and her taking a split second to notice. Team USA won't go any easier on them.
And as for the Czech Republic, watch out. They play in an Olympic qualification tournament on home ice in November against Norway, Hungary, and one other team yet to be determined. If they play anything like they played last night in Calgary, they'll be in Beijing in February making a lot of noise.
The losers of Saturday's games will take part in placement games on Sunday. ROC and Germany play at 3:00 PM Eastern, followed by Czech Republic and Japan at 7:00 PM Eastern.
The semifinals are on Monday. Team USA will face Finland at 3:00 PM Eastern; Canada will face Switzerland at 7:00 PM Eastern. Both semifinals will air on NHL Network and TSN.