Finland 1, Canada 2
You wouldn’t know it from watching this tournament, but Finland's best finish in the U18 Women's World Championships were bronze medals in 2011 and 2019. They made a huge stride forward this year, taking down Canada for the first time at this age group in the preliminary round.
It has been truly amazing to see the level of competition among the teams at this tournament. If this group is any indication, the future of women's hockey is looking incredibly bright.
Their coach, Mira Kuisma, was fighting back tears and struggling to put into words her thoughts on the game in the postgame press conference, knowing how well her team has played and how close they were to making history.
Canada's Jade Iginla, who played in her first game of the tournament in the quarterfinals as an extra forward, took on a bigger role in the semifinals and scored Canada’s first goal. She had been ruled out of the tournament with an upper body injury, but was later cleared to play. Coach Howie Draper said she must have a high pain tolerance, but did not expand on the details of the injury. She moved the puck across the width of the ice until she found her opening, snapping a shot off from the far faceoff dot across her body.
Finland tied it in the second on a quick one-timer from Tilli Keranen that squibbed through Canada goalie Mari Pietersen.
Madison Chantler scored the game-winner for Canada in the middle of the third period on what could have been a controversial play. An uncalled penalty in the Finnish defensive zone gave Canada the chance to break out. Chantler streaked up the right side and had a step on her defender. She broke towards the goal, got Emilia Kyrkko to bite on a fake and drug the puck past her where she had an open net to pop the puck in.
Kyrkko has been stellar in this tournament. After the semifinal game, she ranks second in the tournament with a 0.945 save percentage. She made 43 saves in the game.
Both of Canada's goals were at even strength, and they are now 0-for-14 on the power play in the tournament.
What We Learned:
- Closing the gap: We had seen Finland show at the senior level that the gap between them and the North Americans was smaller than it has ever been, if it exists at all, but that hadn’t necessarily followed through at this level. Both these semifinal games showed that the USA and Canada are vulnerable and beatable. There is great parity here and it means so much for the future of women's hockey.
- Refs rules: The level of officiating at this tournament has not been great mostly due to the inconsistency of the calls. No team seems to know from game to game how they will be whistled and that's really unfortunate, especially for kids having their first shot at a world championship. The absolute fluctuation in the quality of the officials and whether they can keep up with the pace of the game is frustrating and does a disservice to the teams and players.
- Bounce back: I've been really impressed with how quickly teams have shown growth over the course of this week. The first game was a week ago and there has been marked improvement in pretty much every team. Both coaching staffs and players themselves are adjusting on the fly to meet their opponents and it's led to close, unpredictable games.
- Not so special: Between the irregular officiating in these games with Canada's struggles on the power play, special teams could be a very important part of the gold medal game. If the US is penalized anywhere near the way they were in their semifinal, Canada has to find a way to take advantage of that opportunity. I don’t see Canada winning gold without a power play goal.
- Karel Prefontaine: Her seven shots on goal were three more than anyone on either team put up. She also had the assist on Chantler's goal, hitting her with a perfect pass in stride. Prefontaine has just been everywhere on the ice, making an impact in every part of the game.
- Sanni Vanhanen: She has been one of my favorite players this tournament. A true 200-foot player, she's been active and impactful on both ends of the ice, particularly when it comes to starting a breakout and moving in transition. She had the second assist on Finland's only goal.
- In person and on Twitter, the consensus among women's hockey watchers seems to be that Canada is just not playing together – as a team. So it was funny when the first thing their coach Howie Draper said in post-game was: "I think number one, we're starting to come together as a team on the ice." It’s likely both things can be true at the same time. He's obviously seen much more of his team on and off the ice and he said that in good faith, seeing his team be better. But from a hockey perspective, those of us watching the games can see that the magic connection isn't quite where it needs to be.
"Getting that first goal was critical against a team like Finland, because when they get the first goal, they kind of lock it down even more, and they're so strong defensively that they're a tough team to play against. Getting the first goal gave us some breathing room." – Canada coach Howie Draper
"It feels unreal. I'm so proud of this team. We wouldn't have been able to do it if we didn't all work together." – Canada forward Madison Chantler
"I feel like we worked through our adversity and we're all here now as a group to get a shot at the gold medal." – Canada forward Jade Iginla
"We were a little too soft with the puck and in the battle situations. But I'm really proud of this team that we played this well here." – Finland forward Sanni Vanhanen
"Emilia [Kyrkko] was amazing. We couldn't expect more from her." – Finland forward Tilli Keranen
"They couldn't fight any better. Good game for us. The first 10 minutes, Canada came very hard, but we defended. It was very good and then more tight than I'd thought." – Finland coach Mira Kuisma
"I learned that our team is so much better than what any of us thought.” – Karanen
“I think our team played well enough to win the game, but we will think about that later.” – Kuisma
USA 3, Sweden 2
After cruising through their opening round games, the Americans were nearly upset by Sweden on Sunday night. The Swedes, who US beat 6-1 last Monday, have been by far the most improved team over the course of this tournament. They out-played USA for stretches of the game, but were not able to take advantage of the Americans' penalty trouble in the second period. Sweden could not convert with the player advantage, including two extended 5-on-3 opportunities, and that let the window open for USA to come back.
Sweden remains the only team to have scored on the Americans so far in this tournament, but the US scored first. Sydney Morrow, who leads all defenders at the tournament and is fifth overall in scoring, got her first goal of the tournament when she snapped a shot from a sharp angle in the left circle to beat goalie Lisa Jönsson.
Stella Lindell tied the game early in the second when she gathered her own rebound to beat a sprawling Ava McNaughton. It was a tip play where she had her back to the net and Lindell made a leg save, but the puck was not frozen and Lindell was able to just hit at it and force it free and into the net.
Team USA could not stay out of the penalty box in the second period and Sweden finally took advantage with a power play tally from Mira Jungåker. Her one-timer beat McNaughton to put the US down a goal for the only time this tournament. The penalty difficulties made it so USA could not equalize and the teams went into the locker rooms with Sweden up 2-1.
In the third, Maggie Scannell, one of the youngest players on the US team, nabbed a contested puck along the boards and skating away from net. She quickly worked her way across the net mouth and wristed a shot past Jönsson to tie the game.
Grace Dwyer's game winner came with under seven to play in regulation. Finland won a draw in their zone, but Kirsten Simms was able to clip the stick of Tuva Kandell as she tried to pass it out of the zone. The flubbed puck came to Dwyer, who took a small controlling touch and let loose with a shot through traffic to put USA up for good.
The second period was concerning not just for the number of penalties, but for how the US struggled to adjust to the way they game was being called and how frustrated and out of their game they were getting.
Coach Katie Lachapelle thinks it's good her team had to fight for this win and knows that the gold medal game won’t look like her team's 7-0 win over Canada on Thursday in the opening round.
What We Learned:
- Swedish progress: It was not a great showing from the Sweden women's senior team at the Beijing Olympics. They finished 8th and were eliminated in the quarterfinals, losing 11-0 to Canada. They were relegated to group 1A after the 2019 Women’s World Championship. A seeming lack of support and oversight has plagued that team for a long time, so it's been nice to see not just how this young squad has performed, but that they’re coached by a talented group of former players who are invested in not just the team, but women's hockey in Sweden and beyond.
- USA depth: In a similar vein, though obviously not to the same extent, many USA women's hockey fans were disappointed with how the team performed in Beijing. It felt like Canada had done a much better job integrating their young talent and preparing for the tournament. This U18 team shows the future is incredibly bright, development is happening and the perceived imbalance between the US and Canada isn't as big as feared.
- Collegiate possibilities: I spoke to one NCAA coach who said they were actively scouting international players at the tournament and that they were liking what they had seen. After being unable to scout anything in person for the past two years, the opportunity to see these players at an elite competition stateside was invaluable. As more and more non-North American players get the opportunity to play in the US, the impact they have ripples throughout international hockey. Two hundred of the 273 goals scored in Beijing were scored by player who'd played college hockey in the NCAA, including 44 for teams other than the US and Canada.
- Lisa Jönsson: She made 50 saves and did an amazing job of keeping the Americans on their toes. She has adjusted well over the past days after giving up goals down low. She completely stymied the US shooters there and forced them to start elevating pucks to pick out corners. Team USA has the talent to be able to do that, but most teams will struggle to find holes in her goaltending.
- Sydney Morrow: The blueliner led the game with seven shots, including four in the second period where the US was rarely on offense thanks to penalties. She has been great on the backcheck and holding offenses in check, but also really great stepping up into the offense and making plays. She has also excelled at the top of the zone at preventing breakouts, and her shots from distance have led to a number of second chance opportunities. The goal she scored came from her slowly drifting further into the zone while no Swedes noticed and picked her up. The move reminded me a lot of this year's USCHO Player of the Year, Ohio State's Sophie Jaques
- Tuva Kandell and Mira Markstrom: Putting them together because they have both impressed in similar ways. They're the backbone of this team – together they have two goals and nine assists. They are running the offense, not afraid to block shots and have been a huge catalyst for why Sweden was so close to a major upset.
- Kelly Gorbatenko: I wanted to give Kelly an honorable mention for how much she's stepped it up as the week has progressed. She was not very visible in the first few games, but was a big part of the semifinal win. She seems to have found her confidence and her shot and she's not afraid to use them.
"It took us – not by surprise because I think our club knows how good (the Swedes) are – but it took us a little bit to get going." – US coach Katie Lachapelle
"Basically all I had to do was just shoot it and it went in. But it was a huge goal for our team to make it to the gold medal game. It really didn't matter who scored. It was just that we're moving on." – USA forward Grace Dwyer.
"Of course I'm super-proud, but it sucks to not get to the finals. We were the better team today. I really think so." – Sweden defender Tuva Kandell
"I'm proud of my team and I'm proud of myself. But I feel like we could have won. We had the lead and we lost it, and that's too bad." – Sweden goalie Lisa Jönsson
"I think this is basically what everybody on our team has been training for since we started playing hockey.” – USA defender Sydney Morrow, on facing Canada for the gold medal
“Anytime [Morrow's] got the puck on her stick, she's certainly a threat to make something pretty powerful happen offensively." – Lachapelle, on the importance of defender Sydney Morrow to the team’s offense
"I'm always screaming at my team. They really listened to me." – Jönsson, on making sure her team aren’t screening her from seeing the puck
"I think we played a really good game. And I think we deserved a place in the final. So right now I'm just disappointed." – Sweden forward Mira Jungåker
"I don't think it's a bad thing that we had to face a little adversity tonight." – Lachapelle
“My first thought was to only to stop the puck. That was the only thing I was thinking throughout the whole period.” – Jönsson
"We have a really good future. And I think that in some years we will be in the top of the world." – Jungåker
Despite their familiarity, this is the first time Finland and Sweden have met each other in the bronze medal game in the U18 Women's World Championships. The teams play each other often and are very familiar with each other. But Sweden assistant coach Pernilla Winberg said the opponent doesn't matter if her team sticks to their game. Players on both sides were adamant they were prepared to win the bronze medal game after the disappointment of their semifinal losses. Beating their neighbor and rival would make it that much sweeter.
The bronze medal game is Monday at 3:30 PM Central.
This will be the 13th time the US and Canada faceoff for the U18 Women's World Championships gold medal. The Americans have the advantage with eight gold medals to their name. USA won gold in 2020, but Canada took it in 2019.
When the two teams met in the preliminary round, the US took a 7-0 win and Canada pulled goalie Hailey MacLeod after five goals. Mari Pietersen has been their starter ever since.
The gold medal game will be at 7:30 PM Central. Both games will air on NHL Network in the United States and on TSN in Canada.