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2019 IIHF Women’s World Championships preview: Group A

The teams in Group A have stars, skill and shiny hardware.

Canada v United States
Shannon Szabados #1 of Canada shakes hands with Alex Rigsby #33 of the United States after a 2-0 Canada win at Little Caesars Arena on February 17, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The teams in Group A are likely the ones you’re most familiar with, and likely the ones that will end up on the podium. Most of the group A games are easy to watch, too. All five will make the quarter-finals and then it’s one hot goalie away from an upset!

USA

2018 Olympics: Gold, 14 players returning
World Ranking: First
2017 World Championships: Gold
Game to watch: USA vs Canada Saturday April 6, 12:30 pm EDT
Players to watch: Brianna Decker, Kendall Coyne Schofield, Alex Carpenter, Cayla Barnes, Alex Rigsby
Rookies: Sydney Brodt, Jesse Compher, Emma Polusny, Melissa Samoskevich, Hayley Scamurra

Team USA will be looking to continue their considerable gold medal streak in Espoo, coming off gold medals at both the Olympics and 4 Nations. Even so, this is not the same team we saw in Pyeongchang. With Robb Stauber gone as head coach of Team USA, several of his more controversial roster decisions have been reversed this time around. Annie Pankowski, Alex Carpenter, and Megan Bozek are all back after being unexpectedly cut from the centralization roster. Sochi silver medalist and current New York Riveter Michelle Picard has also returned to the senior team, and Buffalo Beauts star Hayley Scamurra has played her way into a roster spot with a strong showing in the NWHL. Longtime Team USA captain Meghan Duggan will not be going to Espoo; in her place, Kendall Coyne Schofield will wear the C for Team USA.

While we got a look at a lot of these players at the Rivalry Series vs. Canada, the lack of NCAA players at that tournament means that Canadian fans shouldn’t feel too comfortable in their win over Team USA—a defense with Cayla Barnes and Megan Keller on it, along with Maddie Rooney in net, is a very different beast. Team USA has been a juggernaut for years now, and they’re still favorites, especially if Marie-Philip Poulin is out. Canada efficiently drove play against the US at the Rivalry Series; whether they can repeat that performance against a stronger, more complete roster is the question Worlds will answer.

Canada

2018 Olympics: Silver, 16 players returning
World Ranking: Second
2017 World Championships: Silver
Game to watch: Canada vs USA Saturday April 6, 12:30 pm EDT
Players to watch: Shannon Szabados, Marie-Philip Poulin, Mélodie Daoust, Brianne Jenner, Rebecca Johnston, Natalie Spooner, Sarah Nurse, Blayre Turnbull, Erin Ambrose, Emerance Maschmeyer.
Rookies: Ann-Sophie Bettez, Jaime Bourbonnais, Loren Gabel, Micah Zandee-Hart

Canada comes in to this, as they always do, with the expectation that they can and should win gold. It doesn’t matter that it’s been a very long time since they’ve managed to bring a gold home in this tournament, the expectation remains. They can do it, they’ve demonstrated several times both this season and last that they are capable of beating the US. The question is, can they do it when it matters?

Things to worry about: the health of Marie-Philip Poulin, who was injured in the final game of the CWHL regular season and was not on the ice for at least the first day of pre-tournament camp, and the health of Shannon Szabados, who was injured in warm-ups prior to the Isobel Cup Final, but who did take the ice for camp.

Even without Poulin, this is a fast, skilled team. Eleven of them were on one side or the other for the Clarkson Cup Final and the rookies are no slouches either. Loren Gabel is this year’s Patty Kazmaier winner and Ann-Sophie Bettez, the celebrated 31-year-old rookie, is second all-time in CWHL scoring.

The increase in teams and the elimination of the quarter-final byes mean Canada will have to work a little harder to make it to the gold medal game but really, no one but the USA should have a chance in hell of beating this team.

Finland

2018 Olympics: Bronze, 19 players returning
World Ranking: Third
2017 World Championships: Third
Game to watch: Canada vs Finland Tuesday April 9, 12:30 pm EDT
Players to watch: Noora Räty, Jenni Hiirikoski, Susanna Tapani, Michelle Karvinen, Emma Nuutinen
Rookies: Elisa Holopainen, Nelli Laitinen, Jenna Silvonen, Vivi Vainikka

Team Finland has one of the best goalies in the game (Noora Räty), the best defender in the tournament (Jenni Hiirikoski), an elite multi-sport athlete (Susanna Tapani), five players from SDHL champion Luleå, a Clarkson Cup Champion (Venla Hovi) and a literal Hall of Famer (Riikka Sallinen). They’re going to battle with Russia for third again, but I’m not sure they’ve got enough to do more than that.

The Finns did come second in the European Hockey Tour tournament this season. The EHT is a newly established series of tournaments between six European teams: Finland, Russia, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany and the Czech Republic. Each team participates in two of the three preliminary tournaments throughout the season and then all six teams meet for a Finals tournament in February that involves three preliminary tournaments throughout the season and a final tournament in February. Finland won the August tournament, and the December tournament, but lost to Russia in the final game of the Finals.

Interestingly, Japan participated in the December tournament, although their games didn’t count for EHT points, and they beat Finland in overtime. Backup (likely third goalie) Jenna Silvonen was in net, but it reinforces once again the value of a good goalie. Räty has looked somewhat human this season, and they’ll need her at her best to beat the snipers on Russia, much less challenging Canada or the US.

Russia

2018 Olympics: Fourth (sort of)
World Ranking: Fourth
2017 World Championships: Fifth
Game to watch: Russia vs Finland, Saturday April 6, 9:00 am EDT
Players to watch: Anna Shokhina, Yelena Dergachyova, Fanuza Kadirova, Olga Sosina, Nadezhda Morozova
Rookies: Valeria Merkusheva, Oxana Bratishcheva, Anna Savonina, Daria Teryoshkina, Anna Timofeyeva

At Pyeongchang, Russia danced along the line between “good” and “chaotic”; one of the youngest teams in the tournament, they had a lot of trouble scoring during the round robin, and then promptly rolled over Switzerland and put in a good showing against eventual bronze medalist Finland. It’s been a year, and if this Russian team can take a step firmly away from the “chaotic” side of that line, they could be a force to be reckoned with.

Anna Shokhina is a terrifying joy to watch, and she leads an aggressive, fast forward corps including Yelena Dergachyova, Fanuza Kadirova, and Olga Sosina. Lyudmila Belyakova, a usual mainstay at forward for Team Russia, is missing from the roster; however, Daria Teryoshkina will be getting her first appearance with the Russian senior team, as their sole NCAA representative (Teryoshkina plays for the University of Maine, along with one of my favorite players in the tournament, Tereza Vanišová). Nadezhda Morozova is a calm, solid goaltender who’s capable of covering for her young teammates in moments of disorganization. It’s interesting to note that Anna Shibanova, one of the players sanctioned by the IOC for doping, is on the roster. Shibanova’s a defender and captained Russia’s gold-medal-winning Universiade team this year; her return is certainly a good thing for the Russians, although she is the only IOC-banned player Russia brought back for this tournament.

Russia won the Euro Hockey Tour finals (they beat Switzerland, Sweden, and Finland to do it) and showed up quite well in a friendly series against the Buffalo Beauts last winter. Their round-robin game against Finland on Saturday will be particularly telling for Russia’s general chances—will they be able to get anything going against a team with an excellent goaltender and disciplined defense, or will chaos win out?

Switzerland

2018 Olympics: Fifth
World Ranking: Fifth
2017 World Championships: Seventh
Game to watch: Switzerland vs Russia, Friday April 5, 12:30 pm EDT
Players to watch: Lara Stalder, Alina Mueller, Phoebe Staenz, Andrea Braendli
Rookies: Lara Christen, Sinja Leemann, Saskia Maurer, Kaleigh Quennec, Noemi Ryhner, Jessica Schlegel, Nicole Vallario

With Worlds expanding to ten teams, the fifth team in Group A is Switzerland, who are in a bit of a transition period. Florence Schelling, one of the best goaltenders in international hockey, retired after the Olympics, meaning that this is the first season since the 2003- 2004 season that Schelling will not take the crease for Team Switzerland internationally (when literal child Schelling posted a .955 sv% and 1.80 GAA in three games at Worlds). Andrea Braendli and Janine Alder are both good goaltenders, especially Braendli, who just had a standout season in the crease for Ohio State. She still hasn’t seen ice time for Team Switzerland internationally, and if anything, Switzerland has gotten worse defensively since the Olympics.

In Lara Stalder and Alina Mueller, Switzerland has two of the most entertaining, skilled forwards in the tournament. Stalder spent the year in Linköping of the SDHL scoring at an absolutely silly pace until she was sidelined with an injury, and Mueller just wrapped up a sparkling rookie season with Northeastern University in the NCAA. They’re both amazing talents, and I’m counting on at least one highlight-reel goal from each of them.

It’s the defensive side of things where it starts getting murky. Longtime blueline stalwart Christine Meier retired post-Pyeongchang, a blow to a Swiss defense that was, to put it delicately, already a bit of a mess. Three of Switzerland’s seven rookies are defenders, to further complicate matters. I make it a point to never count out any team with Lara Stalder on it, but Switzerland will have an uphill climb this tournament. They’re still probably better than a lot of the Group B teams, but to paraphrase Dorothy, they’re not in Group B any more.

Predictions

nafio: I’ll be a homer and call Canada to win it, with USA second and Russia third, although I think the bronze medal match between Russia and Finland will be very exciting. Switzerland has the scoring power to be a dark horse but I think at least one Group B team will leapfrog them.

Annie: I think this is a better Team USA roster than the one they took to Pyeongchang, so I’ll tentatively put my money on them for gold. Russia, a flawed team that I love, is my pick for bronze, possibly because I still have memories of Shokhina’s five on three shorty from the Olympics plastered behind my eyelids. It’s thoroughly possible Finland will flatten them embarrassingly, though.