ZURICH--It’s not Good Friday and it’s not Easter Sunday. It's a great day for hockey is what it is. It’s a beautiful Saturday with two great semi-finals games on tap at the 13th World Women’s Championship. Last night’s sensational Switzerland-Russia game attracted 4,123 fans to the Hallenstadion. The record for an IIHF game outside Canada is 5,632 at the Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on April 8, 2001, for the Canada-U.S. gold-medal game. The European record in 5,247 for a game in Espoo, Finland, on March 14, 1999, for that year’s Canada-U.S. gold-medal tilt. (The all-time WWC record is 15,003 for the gold-medal game on April 10, 2007, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.)
What about today? The two games promise to be sensational, starting with Canada-Finland, a re-match of just a few days ago when the Finns played incredible defence and lost 2-0 (including an empty netter). The night game features the United States and Russia, another re-match. In the first contest, the Americans waltzed to a 13-1 win, but Russia is a much different team now. The U.S. might win, but it surely won’t be by a dozen goals.
In truth, it just might be that 2011 becomes a turning point in women’s hockey history. The air is rent with excitement for an upset at this crucial stage of the tournament, but Canada and the U.S. remain the overwhelming favourites. Is the new boss the same as the old boss, or are times a changing’?
Canada-Finland, 16.00 Hallenstadion
Finland has allowed just eight goals in four games and has proved highly skilled at playing solid defence. Coach Pekka Hamalainen has his players skating up-tempo, challenging the puck carrier and taking away time, and forcing their opponents to play without comfort. Canada has the skill to play that game, but the first contest between the two showed just how effective the Finns can be. An early goal, a power play, a not-sharp Canadian team…who knows? And Noora Raty has been arguably the best goalie in the tournament…Canada’s strengths are many, though. For starters—how’s this to think about before the game?—Canada has yet to concede a goal in the tournament. Three games. Three different goalies. Three shutouts. Defensively this team might be the best, period. Up front, there is no one scoring star. The team has 18 skaters, and all of them have at least one point. Five players are tied for the team lead with four points. For the Finns, that’s a huge worry. Coach Ryan Walter has four lines which are equally of playing solid defence and scoring goals. The battle lines are clear. Can Canada penetrate the Finnish system to score? Can Finland penetrate the steel goaltending of Canada?
United States-Russia, 20.00 Hallenstadion
They had breakfast in the same hotel lobby this morning, sitting side by side and back to back at adjoining tables. Tonight, they play for a spot in the gold-medal game. There is no hiding the monumental task that awaits the Russians. Buoyed by their incredible win last night, they couldn’t possibly be in a better frame of mind. But that alone cannot overcome a large gap in skill evident by a 13-1 loss a few days ago. What’s the Russian word for miracle? That is the word coach Valentin Gureyev will have to tell his players over and over…Of course, the Americans see no anti-miracle in their destiny, and rightly so. They are the highest-scoring team here in Switzerland (27 goals in three games; Canada has 21); they have seven power-play goals on 15 opportunities; and, four of the top five scoring leaders are American, starting with Hilary Knight who has four goals and eleven points. They are bigger, stronger, faster, more skilled…In four Olympics and 12 World Women’s Championships, the U.S. has been in the gold-medal game every time, with the exception of the 2006 Olympics. Russia has one bronze medal to its credit, and that is where its ambitions might more realistically be realized this year. But they play the games for a reason, so let’s see what happens.