VANCOUVER – The scores at the Olympic women’s ice hockey tournament have been clear and unequivocal. Anything but a Canada-USA final would be a huge surprise, but the Finns and Swedes haven’t given up hope.
Beating Finland 6-0 was the closest the Americans have come to losing in this tournament so far. For Canada, it was a 10-1 victory against Switzerland. The hosts also beat the Swedish semi-finalists by a whopping 13-1.
Both North American teams have been together for months, as opposed to having a selection of players from different club teams like the European squads. With this strategy of centralized national teams, the two favourites have strengthened their team play and solidified their superpower status in women’s hockey with lopsided scores.
As we approach Thursday's final, it’s instructive to remember that Canada-USA has been the clash in 15 out of 16 finals at the Olympics and IIHF World Women’s Championships. Canada has won gold 11 times and the U.S. four times, including the last two world titles.
Damkronor knows how to surprise
There has just been one exception. Sweden beat Team USA 3-2 in a semi-final shootout at the 2006 Turin Olympics. Sweden netminder Kim Martin frustrated the Americans with 37 saves, while Maria Rooth scored twice to tie the game in the second period and added the shootout winner.
Martin stood tall for the rest of the game, staying perfect in the shootout. It was the first, and only, time a European team has made it to the final. Canada won gold that year with a 4-1 victory over Sweden.
But why does this year’s Swedish team seem so far from staging a surprise compared to the 2006 edition?
“We’re a lot younger team, not as experienced as before. For a lot of the players, it’s their first Olympics,” said Martin, the heroine of Turin. “There are so many new players. The good thing is that we know that we can beat the Americans. We just have to convince our new players that we can.”
Elander motivates with history
Swedish head coach Peter Elander feels that the four-day break came at the right time, just before the final round: “We’ve seen our friends and relatives. The break has stopped the players’ ‘inner-head injuries’ and made them better. It’s much better to relax and play.”
Apart from relaxing, the team has studied their next opponent and figured out what they did wrong in their disappointing loss to Canada – as well as what they need to do better against the U.S.
Elander also took a look back at the 2006 game against the Americans, where he made his players believe that sometimes miracles can happen.
“Defence is number one, which we didn’t focus on against Canada,” said Rooth. “We have to take the chances that we get and put them in. And there’s no pressure on us because everyone thinks we’re going to fail.”
Frida Svedin Thunström promises that there won't be another blowout like the one they suffered against Canada. “We know the mistakes our team made and we won’t repeat them,” Thunström said. “We have some good ideas on how we can beat them, and we have 21 players who can do it. It’s a good atmosphere on the team. Everyone knows what we are here for.”
Ruggiero calms down
While the Swedes refuel their bravery with history, the Americans want to forget what happened in 2006 and focus on the positive results they’re had up to this point in 2010.
“This is a whole new team. I don’t think anything is the same,” said Team USA forward Gigi Marvin. “We’re fast, we’re full of energy, and just hoping to bury the puck early and keep pulling from there.”
Angela Ruggiero, who’s running for a position on the IOC Athlete’s Commission together with Miroslav Satan and seven other athletes during the Olympics, wants to stay on an even keel: “It’s hard to get to the gold medal game, and I know Sweden is going to fight us to the death to get there.”
Canada’s perfect record vs. Europeans
The history between Canada in Finland is filled with less emotion. Canada hasn’t lost a game against a European team in major international competition. In the 2006 semi-finals, the red Maple Leaf team hammered Finland 6-0. But since then, Finland has improved, winning bronze medals at the 2008 and 2009 World Women’s Championship.
In the 2008 event, the Finns even celebrated their first-ever victory against Team USA by a 1-0 count. Much like in Sweden’s 2006 miracle, a goalie was behind the Harbin 2008 upset. Noora Räty stopped all 30 American shots and registered the win after the shootout.
Räty was in the net in the big games in Turin as well, as a 16-year-old. Now, four years later, she will play in what could be the game of her life.
“Canada will be a great challenge. We have to play well in front of the net. We need to win the battles,” Räty said after practice on Sunday, which was attended by the Canadian team. “If you are scared, you will lose. And we have nothing to lose. We will have fun and see what happens.”
Davidson wants no disasters
Some more pressure can come from the stands. The women’s semi-finals will be played at Canada Hockey Place, where some 17,000 fans could cheer on the Canadians.
“It’s going to be great. It’s a much bigger crowd and it should be very loud in there,” said Finnish forward Michelle Karvinen. “Canada has played really well so far, but there is a lot of pressure on them for the next game. We have to keep the game very close. We need to improve our fore-checking.”
Melody Davidson, the head coach of the Canadians, is pretty clear on what she wants: “We expect to be in the final. If we’re not there, it will be a disaster.”
While the gold medal game might already be on the minds of some, Canadian defenceman Catherine Ward doesn’t want to think that far. “We’re completely focused on Finland. They always play us tough and this shouldn’t be any different,” she said. “We need to attack against Finland. Using our speed and crashing the net is what we need to do.”
A miracle or two? Or another “traditional” North American final coming up? That’s what we’re going to find out on Monday.