So far at the 2023 IIHF Women's World Championships, we've had twenty games in seven days. That is a hell of a lot of hockey. Between the round robin and the elimination games we get one day off to breathe, take stock, and make a couple of predictions.
The standings are slightly different from where they were to start the tournament, and there have been a couple of surprises along the way. From the relegated teams in ninth and tenth place, through to Canada in first, here's how things look.
All props to the French, they scored in three of their four games, and outshot their opponents twice. The goalie that got them to the top division both times, Caroline Baldin, is now a goalie coach with a team in the SWHL B league in Switzerland, and neither Caroline Lambert nor Margaux Mameri quite lived up to her legacy, much as they tried. Northeastern University star Chloe Aurard was moved from line to line throughout the tournament, which may have contributed to her low point production.
Overall this is a young team, with many players on CEGEP teams in Québec, so if you're a North American fan and want to check out how Team France is doing, that's your best bet outside of Northeastern.
Hungary started their tournament with a bang, winning 4-2... against France. That would be their only win, although they put up a good fight, scoring in every game except the one against Finland. Even in that game, they managed to slow things up and get in the way of the Finnish skaters far more often than Finland would have liked.
Their top scorers, Réka Dabasi, Andrea Huszak, and Franciska Kiss-Simon are all likely to be around for a few years yet, and a number of these players are currently playing in North America, be it in the NCAA, hockey school in Canada, CEGEP, or yes, as Sami-Jo kept mentioning, in the PHF.
Historically, developing through play in North America has helped to strengthen national teams so there's hope that Hungary's dedicated fans will turn up at another top division Worlds in the near future.
Sweden landed themselves in the third of the three quarter-final slots from Group B after a surprising 6-2 loss to Germany to open the tournament.
The lone bright spot in that game was two goals by 16 year old forward Hilda Svensson. Svensson ended the round robin ranked third overall in tournament scoring, behind only her linemates, Hanna Olsson and Lina Ljungblom. In their game against Hungary Ljungblom became the first player to score four goals in a Worlds game since Marie-Philip Poulin in 2013. Hanna Olsson then did it again two games later against France. Finland was the only team who managed to keep this line off the board. While it would take a miracle for Sweden to beat Canada in the quarter-finals, if anyone's going to score it's likely to be one of these three.
Look for Sweden to play physical – the SDHL allowed bodychecking this season and the Swedish players seemed to have trouble dialing it back in early games, landing them in penalty trouble more than once.
Goalie Sara Grahn broke Florence Schelling's record for appearances in a Worlds by a goalie, making her 11th appearance at Worlds. She was left off the Worlds squad last year, when Emma Söderberg became the starting goalie in her place. This year they split the net evenly. Each goalie had one win and one loss so it's anyone's guess who gets the net in the quarter-finals.
How high can Sweden go this year? Between the Olsson line and the number of players from this year's silver medal winning U18 squad, the future of Sweden looks bright. That said, unless they learned a lot from their two losses, I don't expect them to end up higher than eighth.
I had my doubts about Germany going into the tournament, and to be honest, I still have my doubts, but they fought their way to second place in Group B and won the dubious prize of taking on Team USA in the quarters. They started off strong, surprising most people by beating Sweden in their first game by an astonishing score of 6-2. Like everyone else, they lost to Finland and beat France, so their final game against Hungary was a must-win. A 2-1 score was closer than they probably liked but it was all they needed to get to the quarter-finals and avoid relegation.
Germany was outshot in every game of the round-robin, and it was really hard to tell which was the real Germany – the team that came out of the gate methodical and hungry against Sweden or the team that scrambled at times against France. It will be interesting to see if they go with starter Sandra Abstreiter in the quarter-finals or go with backup Johanna May and rest Abstreiter for when they need her in the placement games.
Their inconsistent play makes Germany a hard one to predict. I don't think they're likely to move up any, and if Sweden does better than I think they will in the placement games, they could end up sinking to eighth. They have a lot of things to figure out going into next season.
Finland ran the table in Group B as was generally expected. The question is, is that enough to beat Czechia?
Even in their record-breaking 14-1 win against France to start the tournament, the Finns took a few minutes to really get going. They were losing 2-0 to Sweden going into the third period before they decided they did have another gear and stepped it up to score four unanswered goals to pull off the win. That said, once they got themselves into a game, the Finns did not take their foot off the pedal. Scoring was spread fairly evenly throughout the team, with only four players remaining pointless. Anni Keisala and Sanni Ahola racked up one shutout each against Germany and Hungary respectively. Special mention again to Jenni Hiirikoski who has now played more than 400 games for the national team, an astonishing feat for anyone, and who forms an important part of the leadership group that helped the team change whatever was severely lacking last year.
The problem is that while Finland clearly has an extra gear they can and will pull out when things are going badly, everyone in Group B is slower than any given team in Group A. To beat Czechia in the quarter-finals Finland is not going to have to pull out just one extra gear, but two or maybe even three. This sounds like blasphemy against what were the perennial bronze medal winners, but I just don't know if they're ready to do that this year.
A quarter-final loss might motivate them into fifth in the placement games, but I think there's a strong possibility they stick in sixth place this year. Either way, they'll need to come back stronger next year if they want to contend with Group A.
Japan did not win a game in the round robin, but they managed to improve on their record from last year by hanging on for an overtime loss against Czechia, giving them one point in the round.
7-1 against the USA, 5-0 against Canada, 4-3 against Switzerland. All of them losses, and all of them better scores than in the same games last year. Japan still needs work on their stick work, their shots lack power, and they could probably learn a thing or two from Matt Knies about battles against the boards, but there is no doubt they belong in Group A.
The passes don't always connect but you can see that the players work as a unit – they always know where their teammates are on the ice. They jump on every opportunity they get, they're quick on transition, and they generally make themselves a nuisance to play against. They may no longer have Nana Fujimoto to be a wall for them in goal, but the tandem of Miyuu Masuhara and Riko Kawaguchi have acquitted themselves admirably, making 89 and 67 saves respectively. In an interesting tactic, each goalie played one complete game and then Masahura started and Kawaguchi finished the games against both USA and Canada, switching at the halfway mark like an exhibition match.
Can they win their quarter-final against Switzerland? I think they have a chance. Masuhara got them to overtime against the Czechs so she will likely be the starter in the quarter-final. I would dearly love to see Japan in the bronze medal game. Is fifth place more likely? Yes, but that is why they play the games.
Going into the final game of the round robin I would have said Switzerland was doing well. Sure, they got shut out by Canada, but they scored their first goal against the USA in 15 years! And 4-3 against Japan isn't great but their games against Japan have been close for a few years.
Then they went up against Czechia and it was obvious that while the Czechs have taken a step up, the Swiss have not. Going into the third period, Switzerland was getting outshot 28-6, and that was including four shots on one power play. The shots evened out a little and Lara Stalder and Alina Mueller each scored in the third, but by then it was too late. It might have helped if they had chosen to have Andrea Braendli in net, or even as backup for this game, but I don't think Braendli could have done more than keep it a little closer than the final score of 5-2.
Rahel Enzler was the goal scorer against the USA, assisted of course by Stalder and Mueller. She put up four points in the round robin to Stalder and Mueller's five apiece. The other five Swiss points came from three defenders. Even Sweden isn't that much of a one-line team. The last two years Switzerland has been missing one or other of their stars and managed to put together a showing as good or better than they managed this year. That's the disappointing part. No major injuries, no illnesses, and yet they haven't progressed.
Their quarter-final game against Japan is guaranteed to be exciting (programming note, instead of the early game as was originally scheduled for the 4 vs 5 game, this will be the late game on Thursday) and worth your time to watch. Switzerland may even hang in and win it. But if they do make it to another bronze medal game against Czechia, they're not going to see a better result than last year.
Czechia's bronze medal finish last year was the surprise of the tournament. They came in this year determined to live up to that medal, and damn if it doesn't look like they're going to do it all over again.
Their start against Japan was strong but not dramatically so. 2-1 in overtime, and a power play overtime goal at that, is not a result that turns heads. Then they stepped into the game against Canada and I sat up and took notice. They're fast, they're strong, they're not at Canada's level but in their first ever game against Canada at Worlds, they looked like they were right there in it for at least a period, including a goal against Desbiens. Against the Americans, their first three shots resulted in two goals. For a total of 12 minutes and 46 seconds they were either tied or leading Team USA and I was vastly entertained. They outshot the Americans in both the second and the third periods – sure, they were on the power play a lot but Team USA thought they needed to get that physical against Czechia to win!
I thought they would sorely miss the injured Klára Peslarová in goal but Blanka Skodova has been what they needed. The scoring has been by committee. To me, it looks like Czechs took a step last year, saw results, and bought the fuck in to everything coach Carla MacLeod was selling them.
Their quarter-final against Finland will be the first of the day on Thursday, and I really don't think the Finns understand what they're up against.
I don't really know what Team USA are doing. They've had some amazing plays – including Abbey Murphy scoring the fastest opening goal in Worlds history, seven seconds into their game against Switzerland – and they've made some very odd choices.
Nicole Hensley has played one game so far. Aerin Frankel – a goalie whose senior-level international record prior to this tournament was one goal on 10 shots against Hungary in last year's quarter-finals and four goals on 29 shots against Canada in a Rivalry Series game this year – played the other three, including the game against Canada, which as we all know, USA lost.
They have racked up 94 penalty minutes over 4 games, which not only leads the tournament, but is more than double their total from last year of 40 minutes over the entire 7 games. I missed the end of the USA - Czechia game but from the game sheet it looks like they were lucky nobody got held out from the game against Canada.
There's no doubt that Taylor Heise, Caroline Harvey, Abby Roque and Hannah Bilka have been contributing overall. Against Canada, Bilka scored the opening goal and had an assist, Heise had two assists, Harvey had one, and Roque had one. The late (and somewhat controversial) goals came from Kessel and Knight, with Knight scoring the only goal in the shootout.
Team USA is going to roll over Germany in the quarter-finals, and Czechia's not good enough yet to beat them in the semis barring some sort of divine intervention. But if they're going to get back to the top of the podium they've got to sort themselves out and the clock is ticking.
Canada has been the best team in the tournament so far. It all comes down to one game, it always does, but they're in good shape to continue their gold medal streak.
The pucks are going in, the goalies are doing their thing, milestones are being hit, the penalties are at about the level they were last year...but the most encouraging thing to me is that multiple players have said in post-game or intermission interviews that the team isn't quite there yet. They're not pessimistic, they think it'll come, but they're not coasting either. They know there are things to work on and they're trying to work on them.
Sarah Fillier, Marie-Philip Poulin, Laura Stacey, Brianne Jenner, and Brampton hero Jamie Lee Rattray all got pucks in the net against USA. Assists went to Nurse, Thompson, Zandee-Hart, Ambrose and Clark (with Fillier in there as well for good measure). I'm not going to hold Anne-Renee Desbiens' love of shootouts against her. The delay of game penalties I could have done without.
Sweden's not going to be much of an issue in the quarter-finals as long as they take the game seriously, and the same goes for whoever they meet in the semis. They just have to keep working, keep improving, keep getting everyone to contribute, and Canada can make it to gold again.
Lots of hockey still to go, and the best is yet to come. Here's a refresher on the schedule ahead.
|QF 1||Thursday, April 13||10:00 am EDT||CZE vs FIN||TSN 1|
|QF 2||Thursday, April 13||1:30pm EDT||USA vs GER||TSN 1, RDS 2, NHLN|
|QF 3||Thursday, April 13||5:00 pm EDT||CAN vs SWE||TSN 1, RDS 2|
|QF 4||Thursday, April 13||8:30 pm EDT||SUI vs JPN||TSN 1|
|Placement||Friday, April 14||3:00 pm EDT||TSN 5|
|Placement||Friday, April 14||7:00 pm EDT||TSN 5|
|SF 1||Saturday, April 15||12:00 pm EDT||TSN 4, RDS, NHLN|
|SF 2||Saturday, April 15||4:00 pm EDT||TSN 4, RDS, NHLN|
|5th Place||Sunday, April 16||9:00 am EDT||TSN 4|
|Bronze||Sunday, April 16||3:00 pm EDT||TSN 4, RDS 2, NHLN|
|Gold||Sunday, April 16||7:00 pm EDT||TSN 1/3/4, RDS, NHLN|