It wasn't possible for me to be in Brampton for this whole tournament on the heels of the U18s in Sweden and Duluth for the women's Frozen Four, but I made it for everything after the round robin. Wednesday is packed with action – here's the rundown on the first two quarterfinals of the day, Czechia vs. Finland and USA vs. Germany.
Czechia 2, Finland 1
What a shame that what I predict will be the best game of the day was played first and at 10:00 AM local time on a weekday. These two teams match up really well against each other and it made for a fast-paced, physical, gritty game where every puck was contested and neither team was able to get into much of a rhythm.
Finland scored first on one of the few Czechia defensive and goaltending breakdowns. Late in the opening frame, Viivi Vainikka dropped the puck to Nelli Laitenen on the far boards and casually circled around the top of the zone before breaking to net, where no Czech players picked her up and she was open for a pass and touch between Blanka Škodová's legs.
In the second, Denisa Křížová and Kateřina Mrázová got in a scrum for the puck along the back boards with two Finns. The puck popped out and Natálie Mlýnková pounced, circling around the back of the net and immediately turning to shoot on Anni Kesala to tie the game. A minute later, Aneta Tejralová passed the puck back to Mrázová as she raced into the zone and she rifled the puck past Kesala from beyond the circles to make it a 2-1 game.
Finland outshot Czechia 18-5 in the final frame, but the Czechs were shutdown, making 11 blocks. Czechia advances to the semifinals on Saturday while Finland will play in the placement rounds for a chance to move back into Group A – something they were already focusing on in the mixed zone after the loss.
What we learned
- Not going anywhere - Just in case you thought Czechia's bronze medal was a fluke, they continue to prove at this tournament that they are an elite squad that can play – and win – against anyone in the world. They are skilled, they will battle for ever inch of ice, they are physical and they are able to gut out gritty games.
- Czech depth - More than any other team, the Czechs have taken advantage of growth opportunities abroad to develop their talent. Eleven players on the roster have played in the NCAA or are currently enrolled. They have players in professional leagues across North America and Europe. It shouldn't have been upon the players themselves to outsource development they werne't getting from their federation, but their commitment to becoming a top tier team has paid dividends.
- Group gripe? - There's an argument to be made about abolishing the A and B groups in the top tier and this game was pretty much the textbook argument for why. Finland is going to have to fight for placement while one of Switzerland and Japan will get to play for a medal. The opposite argument is of course that Finland is where they are because they lost games to those teams, but it feels like such a shame to have watched this stellar matchup at 10:00 AM on a Thursday knowing that only one of the two very good teams will advance.
- Czechia G Blanka Škodová – Not only has she been a backup on this squad, but she spent the college season backing up Emma Söderberg at Minnesota Duluth. She's had very few game reps this year, but she has been fully solid for Czechia this tournament. In the quarterfinal she made 42 saves, but maybe more importantly froze the puck dead most every time it came to her. There were few second- and third-chance opportunities for Finland.
- Finland D Jenni Hiirikoski – The veteran led her team with 29:57 minutes on the ice, including 11:10 in the final frame. She was also third on the team with four shots on goal. She is 36 years old and still has stitches and tape on her neck from where it was sliced open by a stick three weeks ago.
- Finland F Petra Nieminen - If anyone was going to will the Finns to victory, it would have been Petra. She had 10 SOG – five more than anyone else on the ice. She was looking for every possible angle to find a path through the Czechia defense and Škodová. There is a lot of young and exciting talent on Finland, but in a crucial game where they were looking to ensure their move back to group A, the veterans carried the team.
"They are a very tough opponent. They are really good, they are really fast. They are strong. The fact that we can beat them and prove that [the bronze medal] wasn't just a surprise, it's a big deal for us. It gives us a lot of confidence and when you play with confidence, that's everything." - Czechia F Natálie Mlýnková
"She really stood up today. We needed her and the way she stayed super calm the entire 60 minutes. That was very helpful for us. Sometimes even I thought it was going in the net and then Blanka got a pad there. We are very fortunate to have her here that she's able to step up." - Mlýnková on G Blanka Škodová
"We have players that are dressed, we have players that maybe didn't get the same amount of ice time. But the fact that everyone's all in that's the reason you find success. It takes everyone and I couldn't be more thrilled for our group collectively both as players and as staff." - Czechia coach Carla MacLeod
"Hockey speaks. I think our hockey has spoken this week." - MacLeod
"It has been a mental game for me the past few years, for sure." - Czechia G Blanka Škodová
"We were relentless. We were fearless... We are such a powerful team. We can learn from our mistakes. They way we rise to the occasion from the beginning and look how far we've gone." - Škodová
USA 3 , Germany 0
The Americans advance to the semifinals, but they had to work for it. All three of their goals came on special teams - two via power play and one shorthanded. Germany was never really an offensive threat, but they were creative in trying to send awkward bounces and lofted pucks towards the net. The Americans did a good job of adjusting and not getting frustrated by the Germans taking away the middle, blocking shots and keeping them from the slot.
USA was 5 for 5 on the penalty kill and Aerin Frankel made 18 saves en route to Player of the Game honors and her first Team USA shutout.
Amanda Kessel put back a loose puck at the back door after a KK Harvey shot to open the scoring, Hannah Bilka doubled the lead, and Abbey Murphy took a breakaway to net to score shorthanded. The teams will be reseeded following the quarterfinals, so the Americans await the results of the second two games to know who they'll face on Saturday.
What we learned
- Slowing down the States – Germany took an interesting - and effective - approach to trying to keep up with the Americans: they didn't try to. While they didn't totally leave the neutral zone uncontested, they didn't try to cut off the US zone entry and instead focused on clogging up passing lanes, getting in front of pucks and not allowing the US to cut through the middle of the ice and be dangerous from the slot. They won pucks and while they weren't able to stop every goal this way, they were effective at slowing the Americans down.
- Germany's gains – The game was far closer than most thought it would be and USA coach John Wroblewski pointed out the game was one bounce of the puck from having a very different tenor. Obviously Germany needs to find a way to be more effective and sustained on offense, but they showed they could keep the game close with the Americans. Yes, Abstreiter was good, but it's not like she stole the game. The Germans were winning pucks and not just withstanding the US storm. It was an important game not only for this team and their confidence, but for younger players at home and the federation to see their improvement.
- Germany G Sandra Abstreiter – She was absolutely stellar, finishing the game with 49 saves. Against a team that can create frenetic energy and chaos in front of the net, she never lost her calm. Abstreiter had great puck control, wihch helped limit Team USA's ability to crash the net. Most importantly, there was nothing out of the ordinary in this performance from her. This is what she does game in and game out for Germany.
- USA F Abbey Murphy - She was one of just two players to have multiple shots in the third and she seemed to become more impactful and a bigger presence as the game went on. Murphy adapated well to what Germany was doing on defense and was still effective at driving the net and getting oppotunities in close.
"They were definitely blocking it up a bit. It was hard to get shots off. They were a hard team to play against today," - USA D KK Harvey
"The one thing I try to do when they [take away a view to the net] is change angle, whether that's pushing or pulling it," - Harvey
"We knew that many shots were coming, but Sandra did an outstanding job. At first, we struggled a bit with the pace but then we adapted to the game. We knew we had to block shots and would spend more time in our defensive zone. I'm really proud and satisfied with the game we played," - Germany coach Thomas Schadler
"We saw that they bring the pucks to the net always in the slot, so I told our players we have to be careful, take sticks out and go for rebounds," - Schadler
"She inflicts her personality and her game on the performance. She's fun to watch. We're really lucky to have her." - USA coach Jon Wroblewski on KK Harvey
"The power play has been good, but it was anemic against Canada," - Wroblewski
"Play with as much confidence and don't worry about the mistakes. At the end of the day, she's so able-bodied, so physically gifted that she can make up for so many things that might go sideways. With the confidence she's earned, she's able to manufacture and make the other team put up errors. That's her game. She thrives on the turnover. Predictably unpredictable. High event player." - Wroblewski on Harvey
"That was pretty much our gameplan. Keep it tight on the back end and then get as much on the net as we can," - Germany G Sandra Abstreiter
"Taking risks when we know that we can. Trying to step on pucks as much as possible and taking your time on the blue line to set things up, I was definitely trying to do that." - Germany D Nina Jobst-Smith
"It reminds us of how much character we have and how skilled we really are. Just looking at our growth and how we match with top teams is really changing." - Jobst-Smith
(Photo: Nicole Haase)