USA leads way in Vierumäki

First two tournaments of Twelve Nations Series come to an end

Zurich Hallenstadion  Switzerland

USA's Hilary Knight tries to get the puck past Russian goalkeeper Valentina Ostrovlyanchik at the 2011 IIHF World Women's Championship. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

VIERUMÄKI/COURCHEVEL – The IIHF Twelve Nations Invitational Tournament Series for women’s teams started off with two tournaments in Vierumäki, Finland, and Courchevel, France.

The IIHF-sanctioned event was created to give women’s national teams another chance to compete at the highest level before the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, the Olympic Qualification next season and the Sochi Winter Games in two-and-a-half years.

The 12 participating teams were split between two tournaments and came with almost full rosters while also giving a couple of young players the chance to show their skills at this level. rated the teams according to their results at both tournaments.

1. USA

The United States won all five games at the recent Women’s World Championship, and the Americans continued their streak in Vierumäki where the top eight teams competed. The Americans have become the number-one nation in women’s hockey in recent years. Their streak of winning three straight worlds titles was only interrupted by losing the Olympic gold to host Canada in 2010.

Hilary Knight was the outstanding player and goal scoring leader in Vierumäki with ten goals, while Josephine Pucci, who played her first Women’s World Championship this year, had a strong performance with nine assists and was a +15 for the tournament.

Molly Schaus was the only of the 12 goalkeepers at the event who remained undefeated. She deflected all 62 shots and earned four shutouts.

2. Sweden

Surprisingly it was not the Canadians, but the Swedes who had the second-best record at the Vierumäki tournament, thanks to their 6-4 victory against Canada.

Sweden has fallen behind Finland in the rivalry for European supremacy in the last few years. The Finnish women have won bronze medals in each Women’s World Championship since 2008 as well as in the Vancouver Olympics.

However, Sweden has proven to be the only European team that is able to stage a surprise against the North Americans. They defeated Canada not only in Vierumäki, but as well in a Four Nations Tournament in Lake Placid in 2008. And at the 2006 Olympics they staged the biggest surprise in women’s hockey ever, ousting the U.S. in the semi-finals.

Goalkeeper Kim Martin was the outstanding player in all these games and she was also the busiest netminder in Vierumäki. She played six full games these days and saved 93.72% of the 207 shots on her goal.

With Pernilla Winberg, Elin Holmlöv and Erika Holst, who played her 300th national team game, the Swedes had also some of the best European scorers.

3. Canada

Canada is preparing another attempt to claim the first worlds gold since 2007 on home ice in Winnipeg, and new coach Dan Church used this opportunity to test some of the players he knows from the women’s U18 national teams. Eleven players on the roster were 23 years of age or younger while 11 players have competed in the World Women’s last spring.

While some of the established players such as Caroline Ouellette and Meghan Agosta shone as the scoring leaders, it was rookie Jesse Scanzano who came third in scoring. The 22-year-old from Mercyhurst College had never played in an IIHF event before. Same can be said of Vicki Bendus, who scored five goals.

Canada also tested three rookie goalies with Christina Kessler (91.4%), Liz Knox (91.4%) and Geneviève Lacasse (77.8%).

4. Finland

The host nation Finland had to settle for fourth place in Vierumäki, which doesn’t mean their performance was bad. They lost 3-2 to Canada after a 2-1 lead and won one of the two tournament-closing games against archrival Sweden.

Finland showed depth in goaltending as all netminders had a save percentage of 92 per cent or more, but it had only a few players who created offensive trouble in front of the opponents’ net. Karoliina Rantamäki, who plays pro in Russia, once again led the way with six goals and five assists in eight games while Jenni Hiirikoski (1+7) was among the top-scoring defenders.

18-year-old forward Tanja Niskanen, who played her first World Women’s last spring, stepped up in Vierumäki notching eight points (4+4). Annina Rajahunta, Minnamari Tuominen and Susanna Tapani, who scored three goals each, are other players from the upcoming generation who succeeded.

5. Russia

Usually experts talk about the top-four nations in women’s hockey to draw the line, but Russia seems to be on the way to catch up with their European competitors. The team was still miles away from upsetting Canada (14-1) or the United States (12-0), but the Russians have become better within their continent. They overtook Switzerland this year to claim fifth place in the World Ranking and now they knock at the doors of their Northern European opponents.

At the 2011 IIHF World Women’s Championship, the Russians were close to defeating Finland for the bronze medals before eventually losing in overtime. In Vierumäki, Russia lost to Finland (2-1) and Sweden (4-3) by one goal as well.

The team still needs to improve in many aspects from goaltending to offence, but the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the Sports Ministry earlier announced that more money will be invested to be more competitive in view of the Sochi Olympics. The Russian league has become one of the strongest in Europe and includes national team players from other countries, and the national team will also tour through North America to compete at a high level.

6. Slovakia

Slovakia has been the surprise team of the last three years. In 2009 the team qualified for the 2010 Olympics as well as for the 2011 World Women’s for the first time ever. Last spring in Zurich the team managed to maintain in the Top Division at the expense of Kazakhstan.

The main reason was the World Women’s MVP, goalkeeper Zuzana Tomcikova. She had another world-class performance at the Vierumäki event with a 96.2% save percentage she reached with no less than 152 saves in three games.

In the three games she played, Slovakia had the best scores. The Slovaks lost to Sweden (4-1) and Finland (2-0) by tight scores while winning their only game against Japan, 4-0, thanks to Tomcikova’s shutout with 35 shots.

7. Japan

Japan staged a comeback at the top level thanks to the 12 Nations Series, but it was a tough learning experience for the Asians as they lost all games. The team only scored two goals (by Kanae Aoki and Miho Shishiuchi) in five matches.

For many players it was a good chance to compete against the top nations. 14 players were below the age of 20, which shows the good work done in the youth system. Japan competed in the Top Division of the U18 Women’s World Championship in the last two years and those players hope to reach that level with the senior team soon. Maybe in next year’s Women’s World Championship Division I?

8. Switzerland

Switzerland looked like they took a step back for their usually solid performances. They were totally outplayed by the North Americans teams and Finland, though the Swiss misses had a stronger performance in a 4-2 loss to Sweden.

Same as for the other European teams, goaltending was a key for the Swiss. Florence Schelling had another strong tournament with a 91.3% save percentage while the other two netminders haven’t been at that level yet.

Nicole Bullo, who can play both in defence and offence, attracted attention as well by scoring two of Switzerland’s three goals. The other key players, however, didn’t have their best tournament.

9. Germany

Germany will be back in the Top Division for the first time after four years, and the good news continued at the tournament in Courchevel, where the third tier out of the 12 teams played a four-team round-robin event.

Germany started off well, defeating France (2-1) and the Czech Republic (4-1) before having a tight game for first place against Norway. Germany held a 3-1 lead early in the last period before Henriette Sletbakk tied it up with two goals within two-and-a-half minutes. Andrea Lanzl scored the game winner at 1:31 of the overtime period.

10. Norway

Norway finished the event in second place after the overtime loss to Germany. The Scandinavians had a strong offence with many different goal scorers at the event. They defeated the Czech Republic 5-3 and won against France 6-1. Norway hasn’t played with the elite nations since 1997, but will stage another attempt in next year’s Division I after winning silver last year, where they were just behind Germany as well.

11. Czech Republic

The Czech Republic is on a rise in women’s hockey when it comes to the U18 category where the team competes in the Top Division, but with the senior team the Czechs haven’t come that far yet.

In Courchevel they lost to Division IA nations Norway (5-3) and Germany (4-1) while having their only win against France in the last game, 2-1. Klara Chmelora scored a hat trick for the Czechs in their game against Norway.

12. France

The French were the outsiders at this tournament, but apart from the 6-1 loss to Norway, they did reasonably well.

Against Germany and the Czechs the strategy worked out and the game remained open until the last second before France eventually lost both games with a 2-1 score.

NOTE: The third tournament of the series will be played between with teams from the second and third tier of the 12 teams in Füssen, Germany, November 9-13.

Click here for the scores, photos and schedules of the IIHF Twelve Nations Invitational Tournament Series.





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