The bracket is set for the knockout stage at the IIHF Women's Worlds, and it's tough to remember a time in recent memory where the competition has been this tight from top to bottom.
Sunday April 9
Sunday's action saw two higher-ranked teams forced to come from behind against lower-ranked opponents.
Finland 4, Sweden 2
In Finland's case, they were down 2-0 to Sweden after two periods. Sweden was playing an incredibly energetic pace, with strong presence on the boards. Finland's blueline especially looked confused through 40 minutes – there were uncharacteristic passes into open space in every zone, and players were hesitating with the puck like it might explode suddenly. After a scoreless first period, Sweden finally capitalized as Hanna Thuvik cut to the middle of the ice and was able to put a bouncing puck past Anni Keisala. Sweden got into penalty trouble after the goal (Thuvik for an illegal hit, Josefine Holmgren for roughing) but Finland were still sleepwalking. After a tripping call against Emmi Rakkolainen, Mira Jungåker added a power play goal late in the period, increasing Sweden's lead to 2. Jungåker's shot was really special – she walked down to the hashmarks and adjusted her speed moving laterally, shooting while in motion and picking a sliver of space blocker side on Keisala.
But the team that came onto the ice for Finland in the third period seemed rejuvenated and driven to win by any means necessary, while Sweden didn't couldn't match their pace and couldn't break through their puck possession. Viivi Vainikka got them started by doing hard work along the boards in the offensive zone to maintain possession and then driving towards the net to deflect the shot that came from defender Sanni Rantala. Within a few minutes, Finland would have the game tied up thanks to a quick power play goal by Ronja Savolainen.
Petra Nieminen gave Finland the lead on a quick shot through traffic, and Savolainen added an insurance marker on an amazing individual effort, carrying the puck into the zone on the power play and then just cutting to the middle to beat Sara Grahn from in tight. Sweden didn't as much collapse as Finland came out determined to execute in 20 minutes of clock time what they would have preferred to do in 60. It's not ideal, but it was a character-building win for the Finns, and it should be proof to the Swedish side that they can really hang with anyone in their group. They should expect to remain competitive in the top division for years to come, especially as their young players continue to develop.
USA 6, Czechia 2
When Team USA met Czechia, they also spent a little bit of time playing from behind. Ultimately came away with a 6-2 win despite racking up 49 penalty minutes, including 39 in the third period alone, most of which was for illegal contact.
Megan Keller opened the scoring, joining the rush on a broken play and beating Blanka Škodová five hole. Czechia tied the game on a perfectly executed power play; they moved the puck quickly and efficiently and got a quick shot from Denisa Křížová. Czechia then had some minor penalties to kill, but they kept Team USA off the scoresheet, and took the lead later in the first period. Sára Čajanová stripped the puck away near the benches from a surprised Gabbie Hughes and strolled into the offensive zone with minimal resistance. She out-waited Aerin Frankel and took the lead for her team.
Hayley Scamurra tied the game at 2 before the period expired, however, on a backhand shot off the rush. In the second period, Team USA took control and didn't really look back. The game-winner would turn out to be a great takeaway behind the net by Lacey Eden, who stole the puck from Natálie Mlýnková and stuffed a wraparound chance on Škodová in one quick motion.
Tessa Janecke would add her first with the senior team on a deflection to make it 4-2 in the second, and early in the third, the Americans added goals from Hilary Knight on a redirect and Abby Roque on a mini-breakaway for the 6-2 final. Much like Sweden against Finland, Czechia didn't play badly, but Team USA simply elevated their game and played at a pace that was impossible to match. The third period, mired in stoppages and penalties thanks to the worryingly undisciplined side of the Americans' game, also wasn't conducive to starting a flow that might allow Czechia to get back to their strengths, like capitalizing on turnovers and playing with speed.
Germany 3, France 0
Germany topped France 3-0, with three goals that came from shooting the puck at goaltender Margaux Mameri through a screen. France had plenty of chances to score in this game, especially from captian Lore Baudrit, but Germany got superior goaltending from Sandra Abstreiter and was able to skate away with the win. They got power play goals from Celia Haider and Katerina Jobst-Smith, and an even-strength tally from Nicola Eisenschmid.
Monday April 10
Hungary 0, Finland 5
On Monday, Finland succeeded in playing their game against Hungary and gave Sanni Ahola the start in goal opposite Anikó Németh. Ahola earned the shutout in a 5-0 game, bolstered by goals from Nelli Laitinen, Jenni Hiirikoski, Jenniina Nyland, Emilia Vesa, and Ronja Salvolainen.
Switzerland 4, Japan 3
Switzerland and Japan put on a serious show in a game where the Swiss came from behind to get the 4-3 regulation. It's the most goals the Swiss have scored in a game at Worlds since 2017, then they beat Germany 4-2 in Group B. Last year they only scored 4 goals during the entire tournament. The Japanese team moved the puck exceptionally well and created traffic in front of Brändli which led to repeated offensive success. Unfortunately, the Swiss comeback began with Riko Kawaguchi putting a shot from Lara Christen into her own net. Nicole Vallario tied the game at 2 with a quick shot coming down the left wing.
Japan evened out the netminder mishaps by taking the lead on a shot by Aoi Shiga that went off of Brändli, off the post, off her back, and into the back of the net. In the third, Alina Müller and Lara Stalder simply took the game over with their speed, and scored two goals in less than three minutes to take the lead, which would hold for their team's first win of the tournament.
Canada 4, USA 3 (SO)
Team USA didn't quite have the edge over Canada, but a series of controversial officiating decisions saw them push forward and tie the game late, culminating in an extended shootout sequence.
The first thing that needs to be addressed is the presence of Kelly Pannek. Pannek was assessed a 25-minute match penalty in the third period of the game against Czechia. Previous years' IIHF rulebooks have stated that a match penalty is an automatic one-game suspension; however, this year's only states that a match penalty incurs an automatic suspension until the proper authorities can review (see page 65). The IIHF has issued other suspensions with explanations in this tournament, neither of which would have initiated an automatic review process under the current rulebook like Pannek's – Hungary's Petra Szamosfalvi was suspended for one game after slewfooting Sweden's Paula Bergstrom, which was not penalized during the game itself, and Czechia's Alena Mills was suspended for one game following a review of a 2-minute minor penalty she incurred for illegal contact to the head against Canada's Laura Stacey. Both of these news releases came the day of the game for which the player would be suspended, in the morning. Since Pannek's match penalty involved being suspended until further notice, it seems they should have made a news release with the results of the IIHF's review, whether there was supplementary discipline or not. (I have asked the IIHF about this and will update this post if I hear back.)
But, she played, and despite the deluge of penalty calls, the pace of the game was pretty good, thanks to the ability of both of these teams to play with extreme speed and force offense regardless of special teams. Hannah Bilka opened the scoring for Team USA with a redirect on a shot by Janecke. Sarah Fillier would make it a tie game on a rebound from Sarah Nurse, who used her size to get between two American players and put it on Frankel cleanly. With Frankel off her posts, there was plenty of room to pick up the loose puck and stuff it behind her.
In the second period, Canada took the lead on a 5-on-3 power play snipe by Poulin. Team USA had lots of chances to tie it up, but Canada also had a lot of chances to increase their lead. Frankel's confidence built as the game went on, though, and she made several key point-blank stops to keep her team in it, including a ridiculous goal-line shot by Poulin.
In the third, despite a few power play chances, Team USA was still down by 1. With Frankel pulled, Laura Stacey added an empty netter with 2:27 to play. Team USA kept pushing. With less than a minute to go, the Americans were able to get set up in the offensive zone, and Hilary Knight picked up a rebound to beat Desbiens. However, there was some confusion following the goal, since the arena clock and scoreboard at the CAA Centre were not working at the time. During an extended stoppage to try to sort out the amount of time that should be placed on the clock, Canada's head coach Troy Ryan issued a coach's challenge to Knight's goal, stating that the zone entry that led to the goal was actually offside. Replay angles seemed to show Heise was in fact offside, but the goal was upheld after lengthy review. This may hinge on the fact that no camera angle seemed to actually show the precise position of her left skate at the exact moment she received the puck, but it looked obvious that she was well offside despite that.
Now down just 3-2, and with 39 seconds on the clock, Team USA was ready to make a final push. They went to the net and created traffic in front of Desbiens. Bilka threw the puck in front and Amanda Kessel picked up the loose puck and put it into the empty cage.
This set the stage for a 3-on-3 overtime that miraculously was scoreless, and a shootout that went nine rounds. After both Brianne Jenner and Hilary Knight scored in the opening round, each shooter was either stopped or shot wide until Jamie Lee Rattray's number was called. John Wroblewski elected to use Knight twice in the shootout after the initial five rounds – she missed once and lost the puck on her second attempt. Rattray buried it, obviously. Canada got the win, but it required a little extra effort than maybe they anticipated after Stacey's empty netter.
Tuesday April 11
Tuesday's action finalized the standings for the knockout stage, and, unfortunately, relegation.
Hungary 1, Germany 2
Germany very narrowly edged Hungary 2-1, on the strength of two first period goals by Ronja Hark and Nicola Eisenschmid. Reka Dabasi scored a deflection for Hungary in the second period, but they couldn't find an equalizer despite outshooting Germany 37 to 26 over the course of the game. Sandra Abstreiter finishes the round robin stage with an 0.969 save percentage.
Sweden 8, France 2
Sweden had a big day out against France, scoring 8 goals; unfortunately they were unable to protect Emma Söderberg's shutout as France scored 2 in the third period. Hanna Olsson had four goals and added three assists, while Lina Ljungblom had a five-point performance of her own (2G, 3A). Hilda Svensson and Sofie Lundin each had a goal and two assists, while defender Maja Nylén Persson added three assists of her own. France's goals came from Jade Barbirati and Lore Baudrit on the power play.
Czechia 5, Switzerland 2
Czechia again proved their offensive capabilities with a 5-2 win over Switzerland. They got three first period goals, including one from captain Alena Mills who is available to them again. Switzerland mustered only one shot in the first period and just five in the second. Stalder and Müller scored in the third period to make things interesting, but it wouldn't be enough to overcome the onslaught of Czech goals.
Hungary and France relegated to Division IA for next year's competition, and the knockout stage is set. The quarterfinal matches will all take place on Thursday, April 13. After the quarterfinals, the teams will be re-seeded for the semifinals. The losers of the quarterfinal games will go on to play placement games for final rankings. The semifinals are set for Saturday, as well as the 5-8th place semifinals. The medal games and the fifth place game will be on Sunday.
Czechia vs. Finland - 10:00 AM Eastern
What happens here will be a seminal moment for both programs. Finland is hoping for a revenge match, since Czechia eliminated them in the quarterfinals last year. This should be an intensely physical game with a lot of speed and, hopefully, the defense to match. It's really anybody's game, based on what we've seen from both of these sides so far, and I feel like even making a prediction would do a disservice to the players. If you can tune in despite the morning start time I wouldn't recommend missing this.
USA vs. Germany - 1:30 PM Eastern
Germany has great goaltending and has come so far in just a few short years. They're capable on special teams and have played strong defense in this tournament while making the most of opportunities on offense via takeaways and winning one-on-one puck battles in high danger areas. But Team USA is simply a hell of a lot faster than them and is capable of lighting up Abstreiter and scoring goals at will.
Obviously, the Americans also have a discipline problem. Through group play they have accumulated 94 penalty minutes to lead the tournament, including pretty much every type of penalty you can think of – stick infractions, delay of game, and, what is really the subplot of this whole tournament, the contact penalties for illegal checks. The officials seem to be sending a message that it won't be tolerated, but Team USA hasn't gotten the memo yet – or doesn't care. They should take this game as a challenge to play less chaotic, cleaner hockey, and see where it takes them. Otherwise, the pace of this game could be just rancid, and could take us all to unexpected places.
Canada vs. Sweden - 4:00 PM Eastern
Team Canada is the best team in this tournament by miles and they shouldn't have too much of an issue with Sweden. That said, Sweden has really proved their offensive bona fides in this tournament and if Canada makes mistakes, Sweden will be itching to capitalize. Only an act of God could explain Canada losing this game, but keep an eye on how Sweden responds to the pace and how they convert on the opportunities they do get.
Switzerland vs. Japan - 8:30 PM Eastern
This is the other one you probably don't want to miss. Switzerland got their only win in the group stage over Japan and will want to repeat that success. If Japan is able to start Miyuu Masuhara, the Swiss side will probably have a much tougher time than they did on Monday. This will probably be another game that is decided by just one goal.