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Four Nations tournament thoughts: Team Canada has something up its sleeve

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Here are my notes from watching the bronze and gold medal games at Sunday’s Four Nations tournament finals.

Marie-Philip Poulin takes the faceoff in the Four Nations Gold match at Amalie Arena.
USA Hockey/Ally Eames

I went to the Four Nations Gold and Bronze matches this past weekend. It was my first live women’s hockey of any kind, and it was a lot for me to process. I usually cover the Tampa Bay Lightning; before that, I’ve covered the ECHL’s Solar Bears. I’ve also watched the NCAA Frozen Four men’s tournament. But none of that could really prepare me for the enormous surge of joy I felt to see women on the ice engaging in the sport they love.

It wasn’t just the game or the players: it was amazing to see women referees, women officials on the lines, the woman coach of Team Canada. It was even amazing to be a journalist for an event that welcomed women so thoroughly — I felt welcomed in the pressbox, thoroughly attended to by the team public relations people, and given a prime place among all the other women and men in the scrums afterwards. In all, it was a heady feeling that made me have hope for the strength of women’s hockey to defeat all odds and persist.

But about the games. This tournament was played by IIHF rulebooks for international play, and neither women’s nor international hockey are my area of expertise (luckily I have excellent guidance from the women’s hockey folk at PPP to assist me), so I was there to learn as much as possible about everything all at once while also enjoying the games.

The two games that I watched, the Bronze and Gold matches, exhibited two very different styles of hockey. The Bronze match was a primarily defensive one between Sweden and Finland; the final score of 1-2 in overtime can attest to the ability of the defenders to snarl up the ice in their own zones. The Gold match between the US and Canada was very, very offensively oriented (with a final score of 5-1, USA), with swift skating and sneaky high-danger goals.

Bronze match (Finland vs. Sweden, 2-1 Finland in OT)

Finland (who went 1-2 in the round robin before the final) and Sweden (who went 0-3 before the final) fought a surprisingly close battle given the issues that Sweden had been having to even get to the tournament.

I talked to Team Sweden’s head coach Leif Boork about the 1-2 overtime loss. He said that he felt the team worked hard enough to have earned the victory, especially after problems with the scheduling of travel made them miss the first game. I asked him whether he emphasized a strong defensive system to his players, and he said, “Maybe they played too much defense,” which I thought was a wry and interesting insight.

The call of the game is immortalized in my twitter (@tanyarezak) so I will just pull the highlights out of my observations.

  • Swedish defense are great at defending their own zone, but have a dump-out philosophy that doesn’t result in production or offensive zone time. They also thrive on the penalty kill, gaining better chances shorthanded than they do at even strength or with an additional player.
  • The two goaltenders, Finland’s Meeri Räisänen and Sweden’s Sara Grahn, were excellent. Finland’s goal that came in the last 15 seconds of the first from captain Jenni Hiirikoski was a dirty one that came from a scramble in front of Grahn’s net — a very careful scramble, because (as I learned) according to IIHF crease rules, a goal is disallowed if a player is in the crease when it occurs. I was informed that Hiirikoski has won Defender of the Tournament for the last four straight World Championships, and it’s easy to see why.
  • Sweden’s obstructive and defensive style must have frustrated Finland, because Finland’s lack of discipline eventually did them in. In the second, Sweden managed to convert on a 5-on-3 power play on a goal from forward Erika Grahm. The score remained at evens for the rest of regulation.
  • IIHF overtime rules for this tournament was: ten minutes of sudden-death 4 on 4, followed by a shootout if nobody could convert. Finland also started on the PK, but fought through to regain their lost player without losing. Boork also mentioned that Sweden definitely needs work on their power play — it could’ve won them the game.
  • Instead, Sweden took a penalty and went on the PK, but this time, Finland simply won the game on a power play goal from forward Riikka Nieminen. Sweden’s goalie seemed to indicate that she didn’t like the call, but no referee mentioned it, so the goal was allowed to stand, and Finland won.

Gold match (USA vs. Canada, 5-1 USA)

They say that you win the Bronze but lose the Silver, and team Canada’s many penalties and tough test of goaltender Geneviève Lacasse did them in to “lose” for the second-best medal of the tournament.

After the game, I asked Canada’s head coach Laura Schuler why she chose to have Lacasse in net, and not, say, Shannon Szabados. She said that the decision to play Lacasse was “Part of the plan,” and that every goalie would have a chance to play, including Szabados. It makes sense that Team Canada might want to lull the US into a false sense of security and then whip out the big guns at the Olympics.

  • The first period was played the most evenly. It ended at 0-0 with Canada having the edge in shots, 8-7, and the US failing to convert on its power play opportunity.
  • It was the second period when the US broke through, in the form of Team USA 3rd-line center Hannah Brandt’s two goals, which happened within two minutes of each other. The first one was at 15:06 of the second, a shot sneaking in at a steep angle on Canadian goalie Lacasse’s stick-side. This shot was assisted by Dani Cameranesi. (I recognized her name because her brother was a Solar Bear when I covered the team. As I said, I’m coming to women’s hockey from a very different background).
  • Brandt’s second goal came after some Team Canada penalties. Jocelyne Larocque’s cross-checking penalty enabled Brandt to capitalize on much the same kind of shot, but this one assisted by Amanda Kessel, whose name I recognized because she’s the best Kessel.
  • At one point in the game, I squinted at the ice and wondered why Team USA wasn’t setting up their system and wearing down Team Canada in a planned and orderly manner. I realized that Team USA was busy playing person-specific defense rather than zone defense, and that it impacted their ability to set up a system afterwards. My biggest critique of the first 30 minutes was that nobody set up in front of Lacasse to box in Canada and then dig in the dirty goals (keeping the crease rule in mind). Brandt’s goals came in at a tough angle for any goalie, but they still weren’t hard-working net-front goals. This might matter when the goalie is Shannon Szabados.
  • The wheels really fell off for Team Canada in the third period. When I discussed the game with Natalie Spooner, she said that it was due to a lack of discipline. The story went thus: At 10:45 of the 3rd, Canada pulled within one of the US on a Meghan Agosta shot on a 4-on-4 for simultaneous roughing penalties. But not long after, Canada’s Emily Clark was called for tripping. Hilary Knight led the US power play, and swiftly increased the lead to 3-1. This was likely the moment that turned the tide of the game. Due to the penalty, Canada fell behind rather than pulling even.
  • Immediately after Knight’s power play goal, Canada’s Jennifer Wakefield was called for goalie interference. Before the US power play could get properly underway, Lacasse was called for a high-sticking penalty — and Team USA was suddenly on a 5-on-3. Guess who got the US PPG for the 5-on-3? Kessel. Then, as I was closing up my computer to run downstairs to the interviews, USA’s Kendall Coyne sent one last goal home at even strength, and Team USA won the gold, 5-1.
  • My own choice of MVP for Team USA’s night was Kessel and Brandt’s left-wing Cameranesi, who had three assists. That entire line is dangerous, and worth scrutinizing in advance of the Olympics. [Annie adds:] Kessel, Brandt, and Cameranesi were all teammates at the University of Minnesota, so the three of them having natural chemistry isn’t surprising.
  • Due to all of the penalties, Team USA managed to out-shoot Team Canada 27-19 by the end of the game.
  • The Team USA goaltender was Maddie Rooney, who was solid in the 19 shots she faced, giving up one. [Annie adds:] Rooney was an interesting choice by Team USA’s coach Robb Stauber, since she is the youngest of Team USA’s three goalies. She doesn’t have the experience of Alex Rigsby, nor recent tournament success against Canada like Nicole Hensley, who started both games against Canada at Worlds.
  • I asked Team USA’s PR why Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson were not in the Team USA lineup, and was told that they were healthy scratches.
  • On the other hand, Coach Stauber liked the play of recent call-up Cayla Barnes, a Boston College freshman who has been a standout for Team USA at the U18 level. He said that the decision to bring Barnes up was “easy” because she had nearly made the team to begin with. He felt that her play was good, and indicated that we’d see more of her.
  • Marie-Philip Poulin was gracious and thoughtful in the loss, coming out to talk at length to the media.
  • Brandt was named MVP.

It was a great tournament, especially for my very first woman’s hockey match, and I am excited to see what happens on these teams’ paths to the Olympics.