A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch the two best women’s hockey teams in the world when Team USA played Team Canada in Boston as part of their pre-Olympic tuneup tour. (I think of it as “TheTimeisNowTourPresentedbyToyota”, said in a single breath without pause). The result wasn’t quite what I’d hoped—Canada shellacked the US 5-1, revenge for the 5-2 shellacking the US had delivered in Quebec City the prior Sunday—but the hockey itself was gorgeous.
In anticipation of the Four Nations Cup, I took one of Canada’s most illustrative goals—conveniently scored by Hamilton native and Markham Thunder defender Laura Fortino, for that GTA connection—and broke it down. Is this really a thinly veiled excuse for me to praise Jill Saulnier? Read on and find out!
We begin our story halfway through a Team USA powerplay. They had eight (EIGHT) powerplays this game, and we’re about to discuss the only goal scored during any of them. It was a problem, for both teams. The US needs to not finish a game -1 for 8 on the powerplay, and Canada needs to not take eight penalties in a single game. This was a learning experience for everyone.
Both teams have their second units on the ice when we begin this clip: Bailey Bram, Saulnier, Fortino, and Micah Zandee-Hart (I’m 99% sure) for Canada, and Jocelyne Lamoureux, Monique Lamoureux, Annie Pankowski, Alex Carpenter, and Gigi Marvin for USA.
After J. Lamoureux wins the faceoff, the puck is poked out to M. Lamoureux at the point by Carpenter. M. Lamoureux collects it, passes down to Carpenter at the faceoff circle, with Saulnier pressuring. Here we get a good general look at Canada’s penalty kill setup:
With the puck on the right side, we have Saulnier applying pressure and causing trouble with the passing lane on that side, Bram covering Marvin in the slot, and Fortino and Zandee-Hart on either side of the net to take away the shot and/or collapse into the crease if necessary. It’s an effective way to keep the puck to the outside, and Carpenter doesn’t have many options. She hangs onto the puck for a moment, with Saulnier all up in her business, and eventually sends it back to M. Lamoureux.
M. Lamoureux has a hot second of breathing room before Saulnier can get back, but she also doesn’t have a lot of options. She passes it to her sister, who’s playing the other point.
At this point, Saulnier and Bram switch off. Saulnier goes to the high slot, as Marvin drives to the net, and Bram comes out to make problems for J. Lamoureux. She actually comes close to forcing a turnover as J. Lamoureux gives the puck back to her sister.
With Saulnier in the slot and Bram shifted over, M. Lamoureux has the pass to Carpenter open. Instead of taking it, she fakes the pass to pull Bram further in that direction and gives it back to J. Lamoureux, who’s now open. J. Lamoureux fakes the shot and immediately passes back to M. Lamoureux, under pressure from Bram (who’s recovered after the pass fake).
This is an illustration of one of the biggest issues in the US powerplay—looking for the perfect shot instead of taking the one that’s available. Not to be one of those people who constantly screams “shoot!” on the powerplay, but, you have to shoot on the powerplay. Constantly cycling the puck, no matter how pretty it is, doesn’t show up on the scoreboard. It’s also predictable, which weakens your powerplay’s effectiveness, not to foreshadow what’s about to happen too much.
Anyway, M. Lamoureux touches it over to Carpenter, who does get a shot off. With the high-tech video analysis equipment I have here (YouTube and squinting), it looks like it deflects off the far post, and bounces into the corner and around. It’s collected by J. Lamoureux.
Here we have an almost perfect reversal of the Canadian penalty kill setup in the first image. Fortino and Zandee-Hart have stayed in pretty much the same place this whole time, other than some lateral movement to collapse in the slot, and Zandee-Hart moving up to pressure Carpenter at the hash marks before she got her shot off. Meanwhile, Saulnier has taken over the high slot, and Bram is aggressively after J. Lamoureux at the left point.
J. Lamoureux would like to get away from Bram, who is making her life miserable. She cuts down towards the goal line, and Pankowski, who’s been hovering around the left goalpost for most of this time, slides out to curl up and take her place. J. Lamoureux makes like she’s going to drive to the net, but turns and fires a pass back to Pankowski, who’s towards the top of the circle.
Pankowski’s got a little room, but Bram didn’t bite as hard on that move as J. Lamoureux probably hoped. Instead of passing to the point, Pankowski basically repeats what J. Lamoureux just did, carrying the puck down to the goal line. She’s still got Fortino between her and the net, and Bram is between her and the point.
An important thing to note in this screenshot is how far down and close to the boards Pankowski and J. Lamoureux are, how tight Bram is playing both of them, and how there is no one between Laura Fortino and the blue line. That is positioning that should set off some red blinking lights.
Pankowski tries a pass up to J. Lamoureux, essentially a mirror of what J. Lamoureux just did. This time, Bram successfully gets her stick on the puck and forces a turnover.
The moment Bram has puck control, both Saulnier and Fortino are moving. Fortino, who has a clear lane to skate out, receives Bram’s pass and does just that. Saulnier is also heading out of the zone, but she’s skating on a diagonal to shift in front of Fortino, so that Fortino will have support and can pass the puck up if J. Lamoureux pressures her without worrying about Marvin cutting off the passing lane.
J. Lamoureux does pressure Fortino, and by “pressure” I mean “hits her in the mask with her stick”. (I not-so-secretly adore the Lamoureux twins, but I was waiting for the inevitable uncalled penalty). By then, Saulnier is several strides in front of her, and it’s easy for Fortino to tap the puck up to her.
Saulnier collects the puck as she and Fortino switch places so Saulnier is carrying it up the left wing, and lo and behold, we’ve got a shorthanded rush. M. Lamoureux is the defender back for the US—the tip of her stick is visible in this screenshot—and Carpenter is doing her level best to get back to keep this from becoming a 2-on-1, but she’s got to cut across the ice as well as skate the length of it. Marvin is hot on Fortino’s heels, but there’s a gap.
As they enter the US zone, Saulnier starts telegraphing SHOT with everything she has. With Carpenter tying up Fortino—mostly—M. Lamoureux switches from covering the passing lane to directly pressuring Saulnier, who gets her definitely-not-a-shot off before M. Lamoureux can poke the puck off her stick.
This is such a fun, weird little moment here. Saulnier doesn’t send the puck to Fortino, who’s essentially wearing Alex Carpenter like an overcoat and is in a dubious position to cleanly receive a pass. Instead, she puts the puck in front of Fortino, so much so that it’s nearly out of her reach. Because Nicole Hensley, like M. Lamoureux, was playing Saulnier for the shot, there’s a wide open net for Fortino. What she takes isn’t really a shot—it’s more like a poke-check.
Because of the reach, she only has one hand on the knob of her stick, which is fully extended. Carpenter flails at the puck too, but she’s just far enough back that she can’t make contact. Fortino does, she tips the puck up and past Hensley, and we’ve got a shorthanded goal.
The most obvious lesson is that the US has got to fix its powerplay. It’s been two weeks since losing this game 5-1, and I guarantee you not scoring on eight powerplay opportunities was an issue that both I and USA head coach Robb Stauber have noticed. I’d keep an eye on any changes to their setup at Four Nations—was this a single off game, or will it be a running problem? Have they figured out how to counteract that strong pressure by the Canadian forwards? A team with that much scoring talent up and down their lineup has no excuse to not have an effective powerplay. It is worth noting that they went 2 for 3 on the powerplay during their 5-2 win in Quebec, with both Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker scoring, but Canada was also playing a different lineup and had a different goaltender in net.
Besides Bailey Bram forcing the turnover on what was a great read of the play, the two stars on this goal are Laura Fortino and Jill Saulnier. Fortino’s one of the best defenders on Team Canada, and this is a great demonstration of why. She jumps up on this rush as capably as any forward, and without her ability to take the puck from Bram and race it to Saulnier and out of the zone, this play is dead before it even gets going. Team Canada’s defense might be one of its weak spots (although you wouldn’t know it from the Boston game score, ahem), but Fortino is a standout. Canada, and the Markham Thunder, are both lucky to have her.
In my educated opinion, leaving Jillian Saulnier at home for the Olympics would be a mistake, Canada. She’s great! Fortino scores this goal, but it’s Saulnier’s support at the beginning of the rush and her placement of the pass that facilitate it. I might be an American, but I love good hockey, so I promise you can trust me on this: send Jill Saulnier to Pyeongchang.
The 4 Nations Cup starts this afternoon in Tampa, Florida, with Canada facing off against Sweden at 3pm, and then the USA facing Worlds bronze medalist Finland at 7pm. You can find the full tournament schedule and streaming information here.