Czechia 4, Sweden 2
It is such a shame that this game was played in the middle of the night in North America because it was an absolute gem. With few first period whistles, it showcased the flow of the women's game and the leave ratcheted up even further once the first goal was scored.
Sweden scored first on a great individual effort from Isabelle Leijonhielm, who took the puck from her own blue line up the boards before dragging past a defender and backhand flipping it into the net. But Czechia responded just a minute later. Tereza Plosová's shot was saved and popped out, it deflected back at Maja Helge, who's kick save kept it out, but left her out of position and the puck sitting in front of the net for a crashing Adéla Šapovalivová.
Two minutes later, Czechia lost the puck in the zone but Anežka Čabelová immediately went to win it back. She turned and started in on the net, straight at Sweden goalie Maja Helge. Plosová was coming in on Čabelová's right and she dished it off. It was a short pass, but it was enough to change the angle and put Helge out of position. Plosová had just enough extra net to make it an easy goal and put Czechia up 2-1.
Sweden tied the game 2-2 eight minutes into the third on a quick breakout where they promoted the puck across the ice until it ended up with Ella Hellman in alone.
With about eight minutes to play, Plosová brought the puck out of the defensive zone and fed Šapovalivová coming up the far boards. Šapovalivová cut inside around a defender and fired the shot top shelf to pop the water bottle and score what would prove to be the game-winner. Less than three minutes later, Tereza Gildainová dropped a pass behind her and Linda Vocetková showed off a rocket of a shot to make it 4-2. Plosová said post-game that she loves the power of the shot of Vocetková, making us wonder where she's been hiding it this tournament.
After winning silver in 2023, the highest Sweden can finish is 5th in 2024. It says a lot about the growth of the game at this level that there are at minimum five teams that can compete for the semifinals.
Czechia went from devastated after losing the first game of the tournament to advancing to the semifinals in a matter of five days. The timeline of this tournament is actually ridiculous and it continues to defy the space-time continuum as far as I'm concerned.
Czechia will play for a medal at U18s for the first time since 2015.
What We Learned:
- Two tournaments and luck of the draw – It's cliche, but especially in this format where every team advances to the quarterfinals, there are two tournaments that happen – group round and everything that comes after. (It's not knockout. It's not medal round. I don't know what you call it – quarterfinals and beyond.) Sweden had the misfortune of their toughest game coming just before their quarterfinal. They were focused on that US game and didn't necessarily have a full tank to handle this game. Czechia came in after an easier win and with a bit of chip on their shoulder. They upped the pace and put pressure on Sweden and the Swedish players didn't seem to have it in them to withstand it for 60 minutes.
- Czech depth – I'll admit I said earlier in the week that I thought maybe Czech's U18s weren't keeping pace with the accomplishments of the senior team, but today this looked like a medal-worthy team and not just because of Šapovalivová. They had struggled at times during this tournament but really stepped up when they needed to. They won all the battles and did not give an inch and that, more than anything, is what won them the game.
- Sweden F Hilda Svensson – She's the driver of the offense and even when she doesn't score, she feels like the heart of this team. She's a good foil to the more fiery Ebba Hedqvist in terms of keeping calm on the ice. When things get tough Hedqvist is going to be the first one in a scrum, but Svensson is the one already strategizing about the next play and looking for the next shot on goal. She was in tears after the game and you could feel the disappointment of not just the lost opportunity from this tournament, but for this roster, the core of which has been together a long time.
- Czechia F Adéla Šapovalivová – I try to find folks to talk about here other than the ones that will get other ink, but it feels impossible to choose anyone other than Šapovalivová. The 17-year-old put nine of the team's 30 shots on goal, including five in the pivotal second period. She doesn't seem to ever get down or give up, her backcheck is as strong as her drive to the net and she puck handles like she could do it blindfolded or in her sleep. She's quite simply a pleasure to watch and we're really lucky that she'll be in the US for college so we get to see her even more often as she continues to grow and mature. Her game is both highly technical and simple in that she does not over-complicate things. I love her control and I love that she's scoring goals by crashing the net to put away second and third rebounds.
"It's the best feeling ever. The only better feeling would be to win a medal. We were prepared for the game and we did everything we wanted to do. It was a really good game." – Czechia F Tereza Plosová
"The past two years, we lost in the quarterfinals and it was the worst feeling ever. That was motivation for us to win that game." – Plosová
"I started using my body better. I'm tall. I'm stronger than I was before. I like the contact in the SDHL. At first I was wondering why they hit me, but now I love it. It has helped me." – Plosová
"If you want to win something big, you have to have players like [Šapovalivová and Plosová]. They have experience from our senior team, which is important, and they put it into our game today." – Czechia coach Dušan Andrašovský
"I am very proud of this team. We believed through every minute of this game. It was great to see the energy and believing in themselves." – Andrašovský
"It's really nice. I can't describe it. It's really nice and I'm so happy we won." – Czechia F Adéla Šapovalivová
"We played together with heart and we won." – Šapovalivová
"No, after the game, I think Czechia deserved the win. But it's very tough for us. I'm not happy now. But Czechia was a very good team. They won the battles in front of the net, battles at the faceoffs, battles along the boards. They deserved to win today."– Sweden coach Andreas Karlsson
"You win hockey games in front of the net and Czechia was better offensively and defensively in front of the net." – Karlsson
"It was a fun game to play, so many emotions and feelings. But we lost, so it's tough right now. It just wasn't our day. We made mistakes and they scored on the turnovers." – Sweden F Isabelle Leijonhielm
Finland 2, Slovakia 0
The thought going into this game was that in order to have a chance, Lívia Debnárová would have to be her normal, lights-out self and Nela Lopušanová would have to put on an offensive show. They only got half of that right while Finland played a steady, consistent game to take the win.
According to coach Gabriela Sabolová, Lopušanová has been sick. Hana Krákorová and Michaela Fenikova sat entirely for this game because of illness. In the end, Slovakia dressed just 18 skaters and three of them logged less than 10 minutes of ice team each. I was surprised to see that in the end, Lopušanová skated more than 19 minutes because it sure felt like less. In that light, it's kind of amazing that Slovakia kept this game so close and makes me wonder how it might have looked if they were at full strength.
While the rest of the Slovakia offense did step up in a big way, overall the team played a little timid and spent too much time trying to mount the perfect attack and not enough putting the puck on net and seeing what could happen. Sabolová said she's like to see her team do a better job of creating chances through rebounds and deflections instead of moving the puck around the perimeter, never taking a shot while looking for a the perfect lane.
Finland's Ema Ekoluoma continued her stellar offensive tournament, tallying her seventh goal, trying her for the tournament lead with Czechia's Šapovalivová and Canada's Caitlin Kraemer. She also had the primary assist on Julia Kuusisto's goal.
Kuusisto had been the team's second-leading scorer, behind Ekoluoma, heading into this tournament and it was big for her to get on the scoresheet. Ekoluoma found her with a great cross-ice pass and Kuusisto had a lot of space to pick a lane and drive the net.
Ekoluoma's goal also came from the Slovakia defense giving her too much time and space as she was able to carry the puck in from the blue line and snap a wrister from the faceoff dot to make it 2-0.
Finland advances to the semifinals and will be looking to return to the top-3 after finishing fourth in 2023.
What We Learned:
- Slow and steady – Among so many flashy players and big storylines, the Finns have gone about this tournament in a very Finnish way. They had a setback with the big loss to Canada, but didn't let that get in their heads and have sort of quietly advanced to the semifinals. The group as a whole is pretty concise and stoic, but with the ups and downs of this tournament it's clear they were happy to be in this position. It was good to see someone other than Ekoluoma light the lamp. That said, I think their offense will need to be a bit more dynamic if they're going to take home a medal.
- Looking ahead – It's hard to believe, but this was the first time Slovakia and Finland had met at this tournament. This is the fourth year Slovakia has played in the top division and we might take that for granted now, but they've come a long way in a short time and were in this game from start to finish with a really, really short bench. Last year we were all only paying attention to Nela, but she is certainly not the only dynamic player on this team that has 11 players eligible to return for the 2025 tournament.
- Finland F Julia Kuusisto – After putting just three shots on goal through the first three games, she led the team with four shots. She was also key in the faceoff circle and just generally showed up for her team and was more involved in the play than she'd been up until now.
- Slovakia F Ema Tóthová – She picked up an even bigger role this game with the short bench that was down several centers and used her big frame to fight along the boards, in the faceoff circle and in front of the net. They needed someone to step up this game and she did. I think she's still learning how to use all of her 5'10" to her best ability, but in a really tough situation, I felt like she excelled, which is a good sign for the type of player and leader she can be in the future.
"It's a good result. I don't care about the numbers. The victory is the most important thing." – Finland coach Mira Kuisma
"She was very self-confident and calm. Like a wall." – Kuisma on goalie Kerttu Kuja-Halkola
"It was a great pass from Emma and wonderful to score on it. I got the monkey off my back." – Finland F Julia Kuusisto
"From the beginning it was a great goal. There was a drop pass and then I saw Kuusisto and gave her the pass and she scored an amazing goal." – Finland F Ema Ekoluoma on what she saw for Kuusisto's goal
"We were glad to see our girls improve in every game. The only thing I think we were missing is to be more hungry to score and not wait for the 'right moment.' Just go for it, play more more simple." – Slovakia coach Gabriela Sabolová
"When you don't care, you don't win the game. It's simple." – Sabolová
"I think we played really well, but we didn't find a way to score. I think this game, our players blocked a lot of shots, which helped me a lot." – Slovakia G Lívia Debnárová
- Canada's quarterfinal against Switzerland is in progress. Canada leads 2-0.
- The US meets Germany at 2:30 PM Eastern.
- Teams will be re-seeded after the quarterfinals.
(Photo: Nicole Haase)