Switzerland 5, Japan 0 (best of three relegation series)
Elena Gaberell and Leoni Balzer each had a goal and an assist, but the standout of the game was Swiss goalie Talina Benderer. Japan dominated the opening frame, but Benderer kept them off the board and Naemi Herzig scored in the final minute of the opening period to put Switzerland up 1-0. After a scoreless second, Switzerland pulled away in the third to win the first game of the series.
Sweden 6, Slovakia 1
Sweden won the game handily, but all anyone was talking about after this game was the absolutely jaw-dropping "Michigan" goal that Slovakia's Nela Lopušanová scored on the power play in the first period.
Lopušanová was already turning heads at this tournament with her confidence and stellar moves with and without the puck, but this really cemented the young player as a star whose name people will remember. When she scored the jaw-dropping goal, it was a tie game.
But Sweden was able to separate itself from there, as Jenna Raunio returned to the line up after a game off to recover from an injury sustained during the game against Canada. Six different Swedes scored in the game and 11 registered at least a point.
Sweden advances to play the US in the first semifinal on Saturday. The two teams met on the first day of the tournament with the Americans separating themselves in the third period and putting the game out of reach. The Swedish team has improved in each game since and believe they can turn out a full 60 minute outing to give USA a tougher game.
What we learned
- Well-rounded Sweden – One thing that came up in my conversation with Sweden Ice Hockey director Anders Larsson that didn't make it in my story was about the fortuitous timing of the 2023 tournament in terms of the Swedish roster. They have 10 players back from 2022, bringing a massive amount of experience. They have some standout players, but those players haven't been tasked with carrying the team. Every line on both offense and defense can score goals, which makes them difficult to defend and match lines against. It also allows coach Andreas Karlsson to have a more detailed game plan.
- Trekronor transition – One of Team Sweden's gameplans has been to use their speed and puck control to move quickly through the middle of the ice and prevent teams from getting set up defensively against them. Karlsson said the focus was on doing that against Finland to start with – that his team's talents in that area match up well against Finland’s style of play. But he said to expect to see that more against the US.
- The market exists – This game was on in the AM in the States, with two non-North American teams on a school/work day and still, the reply of Nela's goal was everywhere. For me, that illustrates once again that the demand for women's hockey exists, it’s just not very accessible. Sure, Nela did something major, but she's certainly not the only player in this tournament capable of changing things in an instant. Broadcast things. Give them production value. People want to watch.
- Slovakia F Nela Lopušanová – What else is there to say? It’s not just that she scored by lifting the puck up and wrapping her stick around the net. It's not even just the fact that she needed no pause to get the puck up, but did it all in one smooth motion while at full speed cycling behind the net. For me, it's the complete fearlessness to even attempt some of what she does, much less pull it off. In postgame interviews, she says she doesn’t know how she does things, she just tries them.
- Sweden F Ebba Hedqvist – She had a goal, an assist and was 10/10 on the faceoffs she took. After some stellar stats in the SDHL last year, she was on everyone's radar at the 2022 tournament in Madison, but didn't break out in quite the way we might have anticipated. In this tournament, she's been incredibly solid – putting shots on net, winning the battle for the puck and supporting her teammates. She's still not a flashy standout, per se, but she's an incredible solid player who showed why she's a top liner they can count on.
"It was a great game. We did our best and we really fought hard until the end. It's going to give us much experience in the next games." – Slovakia F Nela Lopušanová
"My dad motivated me to do it. He knows I can do it and he pushed me to do it on the power play and go behind the net." – Lopušanová on her "Michigan" goal
"I don't really know. I just kind of do it. I'm not scared. All of the players are the same regardless of their age. I'm doing the best I can and doing whatever I find that can work." - Lopušanová
"Once I see she has the puck, I'm like ok, we have time. It's obviously really good to have somebody on the team that can go score." – Slovakia F Lily Stern
"We've got the female Connor Bedard on the team. She [scored]. She's better." – Stern
"We all want revenge. On both teams [USA and Canada]." – Sweden D Linnea Natt Och Dag
"I like being both offense and defense. Sometimes the coach tells me to go on my feeling. I really trust my teammates and they really help with that. I go on my feeling and I trust that there is someone who sees that and covers on defense." – Natt Och Dag
Finland 3, Czechia 2
After an abysmal preliminary round showing where they managed two goals in three games, hadn't scored on the power play and left their coach speechless on how to describe what was going on with her team, Finland showed up on Thursday looking like the team that won bronze last June. It apparently took the threat of dropping to group B and no chance for a medal to shake them up and help them come together as a team. Pauliina Salonen scored twice on the power play and Sanni Vanhanen scored two minutes after Salonen's second extra-attacked goal in the third to help Finland come from behind to edge Czechia.
The Czech players were devastated by the loss, feeling they’d beaten themselves and allowed the game to slip away from them. It was a 1-0 game heading into the third, but Tereza Plosová scored just 44 seconds in to tie the game. Six minutes later, Linda Vocetková added a power play goal to give Czechia the 2-1 lead. Goalie Michaela Hesová said the team lost focus and got too comfortable after taking the lead and mental mistakes allowed Finland back in the game.
What we learned
- Nobody knows … – Finland's third goal was reviewed for goalie interference and once again, the officiating decision seemed to contradict the popular opinion on the broadcast and social media. The goal was allowed and it proved to be the game-winner, but I don't know how we're not at critical mass on interpretation and implementation of that rule at IIHF women's events.
- Five teams on top – I don't think this is necessarily new information, but I think Czechia solidified that their senior level bronze medal is only the beginning. This U18 team is very good and likely should have been playing for a medal each of the last two U18 tournaments.
- They're still kids – This tournament feels professional and the level of hockey has been superb, but these are still kids – some as young as 14. The Czechs were devastated by this loss and it showed. They took a long time to get off the ice, like they couldn’t really believe it had happened. They had to walk past all the waiting press in the mixed zone with tears running down their faces and then the players that had been requested by media waited along a wall, hugging and consoling each other. It was a reminder of the heartbreak of the game, the camaraderie of the teams and how much sports makes players grow up quickly.
Finland F Pauliina Salonen – I've talked about this during the college season, but there are certain players that, when their back gets pushed against the wall, respond with abandon and proceed to play like they refuse to let their team lose. That was Pauliina Salonen on Thursday. In the third period, she seemed to be everywhere at once. She was involved in nearly every play on offense and defense, was on the boards and in front of the net and just generally looked like she was going to carry the team to victory herself if she had to.
Czechia F Adéla Šapovalivová – She led the team in faceoffs, was second in shots, and had an assist. But most importantly, she was a calm presence in the midst of a game that was all over the map emotionally. Honorable mention to Tereza Plosová and Michaela Hesová, both of whom were solid and commanding in the game.
"We talked last night for a long time. We used our time to do some things as a group and now they showed that they are a team on the ice." – Finland coach Mira Kuisma
"[Pauliina Salonen] and [Sanni] Vanhanen and [Tilli] Keranan, the flames just burned in their eyes." – Kuisma, about how her top line seemed determined to will the team to win
"I’m always a calm player. I'm that kind of player. Today I tried to be even more so to help the team." – Finland D Nella Berg
"It means everything. It's so awesome that we get to play in the semi-final." – Finland F Pauliina Salonen
"We know that we lost due to our own mistakes, so we're kind of pissed off. We made stupid mistakes and let them score two goals, which is unforgivable in a game like this." – Czechia G Michaela Hesová
"It's hard because it's the second time. We lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals in 2022 by one goal." – Czechia coach Dušan Andrašovský
"We lost confidence and stopped believing that we can win. After that it was very hard." – Andrašovský
(Photo: Nicole Haase)