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World Championships Medal Games Preview

There’s a surprise contender this time — two actually.

IHOCKEY-WORLD-WOMEN-SUI-JPN
Andrea Braendli got it done in a shootout.
Photo by BO AMSTRUP/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

The IIHF Women’s World Championships wraps up this weekend after some surprising quarterfinal results where history was made. It’s a fair statement that the medal rounds for the Women’s championship are very predictable. What most people making that fact into a criticism don’t know, because they don’t watch it, is the the Men’s World Championships has featured Canada vs Finland in the final three years in a row. The 2018 men’s final with surprise semifinal winners Sweden and Switzerland was a refreshing change from the all Canada all the time run of things.

The USA and Canada absolutely dominate in women’s play, and the chances of them losing in a quarterfinal is tiny. The chance of either losing in a semifinal is a slightly bigger, yet still tiny number. But the more games the women play, the smaller the gaps, and this year, Finland fell under pressure from a lower-ranked team and Switzerland very nearly did.

Quarterfinal Results

Attention from television broadcasters and schedule makers is always on the two least interesting games in the quarters. Nationalism rules in the TV producers’ minds.

First place USA faced the surprise eighth place finisher Hungary, and naturally, rolled them with a comically large score of 12-1 providing Hilary Knight with ample opportunity to pass Hayley Wichenheiser for all-time leader in points in the world championships. Hungary made their mark just getting into the top eight, but no eighth-place finisher would have touched the USA.

In the second least exciting quarterfinal, Canada faced Sweden and won in a shutout:

The other two quarters were where the fun was to be had. And the excitement.

Japan, who advanced into Group A only because Russia was expelled from the event, faced Switzerland in the middle of the pack matchup of fourth vs fifth. Japan had played the toughest set of matches in their history facing all the Group A teams, and they’d played well against Switzerland already. They weren’t backing down.

After a scoreless first period, almost dead even in shots, the Swiss understood they were in for a fight. They were missing their two best players, stars of the women’s game in Alina Müller and Lara Stalder. But they should have been better enough than any Group B team, and that’s what Japan essentially was, to win handily without them.

Japan opened the scoring in the second and carried the 1-0 lead into the third, but given the relative strength of the goalies and the experience of the Swiss players, it seemed inevitable they would tie it up, and so they did.

Overtime did not solve this, and the game went to a shootout. This was no contest. Japan doesn’t have great natural shooting talent, that’s not their game. Switzerland does have Andrea Braendli, one of the better goalies in the tournament. Game to Switzerland without Japan ever scoring in the shootout.

Both teams know what to take away from this game. Switzerland can’t ride Müller and Stalder and neglect the rest of the team. They must work on their team depth and skills to maintain their Group A position and close the gap on the traditional number three, Finland, all while looking over their shoulder. Japan has to increase their footspeed and some fundamentals, and work on shooting skill.

Upsets are fun when it’s not your team going down, and the Finland - Czechia game was a historic upset, one for the ages. Finland had a full team, their very good goalie, and the Czechs had their very good goalie and an undefeated record in Group B play. Group B play is not like playing Finland, but you’d never know it by the way the Czechs came out hard and played hard all game long.

Finland is clearly the better team in terms of positional and passing skill, but the Czechs defended beautifully. They got hemmed in sometimes, but they had no fear in weathering it until they could get a turnover, and there lay their weakness — no real rush game or scoring threat on the transitional play. But Finland just had no effective offence on their cycles. They shot from too far out, they stayed on the perimeter and could not break the Czech defensive formation. When you’re the weaker team, tight defence can win you the game.

In a pattern identical to the Swiss win, the two teams were deadlocked and scoreless after one, and the Czechs scored first in the second. Early in the third, the Finns tied it up and it was going to be the same story as the defeat of Japan. Except it wasn’t. Aneta Tejralová scored a few seconds into OT, to make history. Czechia goes from sixth place to the semifinals.

This is the first ever women’s semis without Finland, and suddenly those placement games I’ve been ignoring are of crucial importance. Finland plays Hungary, Japan plays Sweden, and then the winners play off to determine the order of fifth through eighth for this tournament. Finland has to win through to stay in Group A for next year’s championship. And everyone really, really wants to beat them. All that takes place in the background over the next two days as the semifinals and medal games take centre stage.

Semifinals

  • USA vs Czechia on Saturday, September 3 at 8 am on TSN3 and NHL network in the US
  • Canada vs Switzerland on Saturday at noon on TSN3 and NHL network in the US

Medal Games

  • Semifinal winners play for gold and silver at 1:30 pm on Sunday, September 4 on TSN1 and TSN5 and NHL network in the US (game is repeated on TSN2 at 11 pm) This is likely to be the Canada - USA game
  • Semifinal losers play for bronze at 9 am on TSN1 and NHL network

Even if the semis shake out as expected, a new nation will win a medal this year.