The big theme for both the US and Canada will be trying to hold off the rest of the teams as the gap continues to close. While a championship game is likely expected for both teams, it’s definitely not a given. Both teams lost their pre-tournament warm-up matches and the squads from Sweden and Finland, particularly, are looking to improve their finish on home (or close to home) soil.
The defending champs have seven returning players on their roster, but a new coach in Courtney Birchard-Kessel. The team is focused and locked in – a contrast with their start to the 2022 tournament in June. I would not expect the same slow start from this squad. Newcomer Emma Venusio has been dubbed by some as "the next big thing" for quite a few years now and this will be her first national team outing. She’s a versatile, all-around player with an elite shot that makes you stop and pay attention. Gracie Graham is a big, powerful defender that uses her long reach and body to take away space. The entire Canadian defense is big. Expect a powerful force in front of the net, particularly with two rookie goalies behind them.
The 2022 silver medalists also have seven returners on their roster, including goalie Annelies Bergmann. In Madison, the Americans burst out strong and had a massive preliminary round before regressing to the mean a bit in the knockout rounds. The silver is usually a disappointment (at least initially), but I think it was more so for the US, who absolutely handled Canada in the opening round and couldn't find near that level of flow in the gold medal game. A lot of attention will be on Joy Dunne. At 5'11" she's hard to miss on the ice and she uses her size to gain position in front of the net. She's a stalwart defender that knows when to creep into the offensive zone and be open to rip off a shot.
The Finns took bronze in 2023 and are eyeing the championship game. They have a seasoned team with national team and professional experience – 17 of their players are 2005-born skaters. Ten of the team members come from their development school while 13 are playing with clubs across Finland. They took a little time to settle into themselves in Madison, but seem to be more confident and sure at this point in their preparation for this tournament. They'd like nothing more than to break through to the top on rival soil with a bunch of fans in the stands. If they’re going to do it, they'll need Sanni Vanhanen to be good from the drop. She had just three assists early in last year's tournament and then scored all three of the team's goals in the bronze medal game. In her rookie season with HIFK, she's been prolific, so we'll see how that translates in this tournament.
The home team has ten returning players and a wealth of international and SDHL experience. Sweden finished fourth in 2022. This year, they're icing a talented squad that probably doesn't have as many nerves about the tournament in general, but may have some about playing well at home. They won a warmup game against the Americans this week, which helps their confidence in knowing how they compare to the top tier. Astrid Lindeberg anchors the defense while players like Mira Junåker, Jenna Raunio, and Mira Markström hope to repeat their outstanding performances in Madison. Those three stood out again and again last June. I'm also excited to see what Sara Lundqvist does on this stage.
The team has room to improve. They aren;t coming into the tournament where the coaching staff would have liked, but they know they have the talent to make it work. Adéla Šapovalivová is a 16-year-old phenom that played at the both the U18 and senior level World Championships for Czechia in 2022. She's a smart player with great vision and the ability to lose defenders. She is the present and future of Czech hockey and playing with her elevates the rest of her teammates. Their biggest obstacle might be themselves. The players need to get out of their own way and play the game they know how to play.
The surprise of the tournament in 2022, the Slovakian team was jubilant to reach their first-ever quarterfinal. The team said they get little to no attention back home, but hoped this breakthrough would help. They were relegated in 2019 while hosting this tournament, but brought back up when the IIHF sanctioned Russia. And they made the most of their opportunity. Now they have confidence and a year of experience to bring with them on the ice. With a young squad, the ceiling and ability to continue to grow is huge and hopefully as they continue to do so, they get the support they need from back home. Goalie Livia Debnarova was crucial to how they finished in 2022 and has comported herself well in her professional rookie season. It should be fun to watch her in net this week.
The Swiss team has tons of potential that has to be realized. They are young and sometimes timid, but have dynamic forwards in Chiara Eggli and Elena Gaberell, among others. Margaux Favre is the returning goalie, but they are confident in all of their netminders. Being able to trust the goalie gives them room to be more offensively-minded. But their strength is on defense. This team sells out for blocks, is great on their sticks and do a great job not leaving space in front of the net.
The newcomers to the top tier play their first game at this level since 2019 at this tournament. With a strong tradition of goaltending, they'll build from the back and use players like Kohane Sato and Aiko Yoshikawa to gain possession and find outlet passes forward. They need to play smart with the puck and not try to do too much. Board play is crucial for this team.
- Czechia came back from a 2-0 deficit to beat Switzerland 3-2 in the first game of the tournament.
- Slovakia has beaten Japan 3-2.
- Canada will play Finland at 2:00 PM.
- Group A games not being broadcast on NHL Network will be available on ESPN+ in the United States.
- Kenzie Lalonde and Cheryl Pounder are on the call for TSN for Group A broadcasts, with Renata Fast and Laura Diakun in the studio, bringing back most of the crew that made last year's TSN broadcast of this tournament so successful.