BURLINGTON—The IIHF Women’s World Championship has now posted 15 games into the record books so far, and one thing is certain—the new format has been a tremendous success. There have been only four games which lacked competitive balance, and all of those, strangely, have come in Group A, the top group.
What does this mean? Well, the lines are blurring. There used to be four clear divides. At the top was the United States and Canada. The second tier consisted of Sweden and Finland. The third, more shifting tier, consisted of the other top pool nations, after which there was a dramatic drop to Division I nations and below.
The new format for this year divided the teams into two groups not horizontally but vertically, putting the top teams in Group A and the lower-ranked teams in Group B. Thus, the number-one team didn’t play number eight in the Preliminary Round, a scenario which previously resulted in double-digit blowouts without fail.
This year, the games in Group B have been close, exciting, and full of drama. No, the skill level isn’t up to North American standards, but the competition level—which is more important in the short term—has been. Sweden got to the quarter-finals only through a fortunate result in another game. The Swiss have been impressive and will play for a medal.
Germany, back in the top pool for the first time since 2008, has held its own. And even Slovakia, which lost 18-0 to Canada in its Olympics debut in 2010, has proved a determined and difficult opponent this year, capable of scoring a few goals finally and continuing to get great goaltending from Zuzana Tomcikova.
While the North Americans are still clearly and vastly superior to everyone else, one wonders if there is a little separation now between them. A couple of facts attest to this. First, the U.S. humiliated Canada 9-2 on the first day of play, an aberration perhaps, but one that had never occurred before.
Second, while games between other teams don’t necessarily reveal much, there does seem to be some importance to Canada’s narrow 3-2 win over Finland and the Americans’ blowout of Finland to the tune of 11-0. As Finnish goalie Noora Raty explained: “I don’t see any difference between them,” she said of the U.S. and Canada, “but I think we believe we can’t beat the U.S., but we do believe we can beat Canada.”
That in itself shows progress. At the highest levels of play, psychology is as important as skill and affects performance as much as any game plan or strategy. Many players and teams have lost games even before they started simply because they didn’t believe they could win.
In truth, Canada dominated the game against Finland but failed to finish, and Raty had an excellent game as well. But the difference between Finland and Sweden, a rivalry once equal, has shifted heavily in Finland’s favour. And other teams are moving up, catching Sweden and providing the Finns with competitive games. Last year, for instance, Russia beat Switzerland and Finland needed overtime to beat Russia. This year, Russia pushed Finland and lost by a 5-4 score.
Gaps still remain and blowouts have still occurred, but the talk here in Burlington has been more about great games than embarrassing scores. The United States and Canada are likely to play for gold for the next few years at least, but the bronze medal is clearly more than a two-horse race. And, games along the road to the medal round have become more exciting to watch.
The changes will come slowly and it will still take time, but the overall competitive balance under the new format has improved dramatically this year over previous years.