VANCOUVER – The Canadian women overcame a sparkling performance by Finnish goalie Noora Räty, winning 5-0 in Monday's second semi-final at Canada Hockey Place. The result sets up a classic Canada-U.S. gold medal game on Thursday.Click here for the photo gallery of the game.
Thanks to Räty's heroics, the score was closer than expected for most of the night, despite Canada's 50-11 edge in shots on goal. "I think it was like one of the [best performances I've ever had," said Räty.
2010 marks the third time the North American superpowers will battle for gold since women's hockey was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1998. The Americans beat Canada 3-1 that year in Nagano, while the Canadians claimed the title on U.S. ice in Salt Lake City in 2002 with a 3-2 victory.
"It's an Olympic final game, and that's what we've been working toward all year," said Canada's Jennifer Botterill. "We're excited. We've got a lot of work ahead of us, but we're going to enjoy it."
Versus Finland, Haley Irwin stepped up with two goals for Canada, and tournament scoring leader Meghan Agosta (9G, 5A, 14P) chipped in a goal and an assist. Agosta set a new record for most goals in one Olympic tournament when she potted her ninth of 2010 in the second period. That surpassed retired Canadian great Danielle Goyette's mark of eight from 1998.
Canada is the defending Olympic champion from Turin 2006, where it defeated Sweden 4-1 in the final. In Monday's early semi-final, the Americans gained revenge on the Swedes, who knocked them out of title contention in Turin, with a 9-1 spanking.
"In some ways, it was a little disappointing we didn't get to face the Americans in the '06 Olympics," said Canadian veteran Jayna Hefford, who scored the gold-medal winner in 2002. "Of course, you'll take a gold medal any day over facing a particular team, but you know what? Canada-U.S. is something people love to watch and we love to play in. It's going to be a battle all night on Thursday."
Canada heads into the final with a whopping goal differential of 46-2 in four games so far. However, it failed to capitalize on the power play against Finland, even though the blue-and-white women took six minors.
"The Finns played a tough, in-your-face game and they were good with their sticks in the lanes," said Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser. "They made it hard for us to generate momentum, and their goalie was excellent. They gave us probably the best game they could with the skills they have."
"We just battled and we didn't quit," said Räty.
Facing Sweden in Thursday's bronze medal game, Finland will seek its first Olympic women's hockey medal since 1998's bronze.
The diminutive but tenacious Finns did their best to clog up the middle and clear loose pucks out of their end, but simply couldn't generate enough offensively to support Räty's great play. They'd acknowledged before this game that ousting Canada would be a “humongous task,” and it proved too big for them.
Finland staved Canada off until the 5:22 mark, when Agosta swirled around the Finnish net and centered a sweet backhand feed to Cherie Piper, who banged it past Räty.
At 14:36, just after a Finnish penalty had expired, Haley Irwin picked up a loose puck in Räty's goal crease and shoveled it past the netminder's right skate for a 2-0 lead. The Canadians outshot Finland 15-2 in the first period.
The host team continued to press in the middle frame, and the Finnish netminder had to keep doing her best mini-Miikka Kiprusoff impression.
Even though Räty stoned Sarah Vaillancourt on a rebound at the end of an early power play and slid across to make a great glove save on Gina Kingsbury, she couldn't stop Agosta at 16:21 when the Ruthven, Ontario native scooped in a rebound with the teams playing 4-on-4. When the buzzer sounded, the shots were 32-5 for Canada.
Räty stopped Agosta on a partial breakaway early in the third. But at 4:23, Irwin scored her second of the game on a rebound that deflected in off the goalie's glove to make it 4-0.
Wickenheiser put the puck off the post on a late solo rush. Jenni Hiirikoski was shaken up on a collision deep in the Finnish end with Gillian Apps with four minutes remaining.
Canadian fans sang a spontaneous rendition of "O Canada" as the clock ticked down, and Caroline Ouellette rounded out the scoring at 5-0 with 1:03 to play.
With the gold medal game looming, the Americans are the two-time defending world champions, but Canada had the edge in exhibition play leading up to the Vancouver Olympics.
"We know exactly what [Team USA's] motivation is going to be," said Hefford. "We've heard it many times. It's going to be Salt Lake, and it's going to be the 'Miracle on Ice.' Good for them. That's their experience. Our experience as Canadian hockey players is completely different, and we're so proud to be playing here in Canada. This crowd is giving us energy every night."
Netminder Shannon Szabados earned her first shutout of the tournament for Canada.
"The team played well in front of me, and it's really exciting," said Szabados. "I didn't get many shots in the early going, which makes it tough to stay involved mentally. You have to find ways to keep yourself occupied, because all these teams are good and they're going to get their chances eventually."
This was the third straight Olympic semi-final victory for Canada over Finland (7-3 in 2002, 6-0 in 2006).