As we head into Saturday’s quarter-finals for the Olympic women’s hockey tournament, here are some of the lessons we’ve learned so far in Sochi.
Scoring is down
The new format, which put the teams ranked 1-4 in one group and the teams ranked 5-8 in the other, has had a significant impact. More competitive games have resulted, with smaller margins of victory. If we classify a “blowout” as winning five or more goals, for instance, then there have been only two blowouts: Switzerland’s 5-0 loss to Canada and 9-0 loss to the United States.
This trend will also have an impact on the final scoring leaders. In Vancouver 2010, Canada’s Meghan Agosta topped the points parade with 15 in five games. By contrast, right now, Canada and the Americans both have two games remaining, and the overall leader is the U.S.’s Hilary Knight with five points. Two Canadians, two Americans, and a Finn and a Russian are tied with four points apiece.
Suffice it to say that it’s unlikely – even if there is a lopsided score or two in the semi-finals – that anyone is going to rack up 10 or 11 points down the stretch.
Your best players have to be your best players
Yes, it’s a hoary cliche, but its truth also came out in Canada’s 3-2 round robin win over the United States. Who took care of the offence in the third period when the game was on the line? Agosta, the 2010 MVP and Best Forward, scored twice, and Hayley Wickenheiser, the sport’s most legendary active player, came through with a goal and an assist.
That’s big-game composure. Should a gold medal rematch transpire, American gunners like Hilary Knight, Amanda Kessel and Brianna Decker will need to find another gear they couldn’t achieve in the third period of the initial clash, where the U.S. was outshot 12-3.
“Discipline” doesn’t rhyme with “Finland”
The Finns should be favoured heading into their quarter-final matchup. They gave both the Americans and Canadians a good battle in the preliminary round, and have dominated Sweden historically in women’s hockey. At the Olympics, they’ve beaten Damkronorna in two out of three meetings, and at the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, they haven’t lost to Sweden since 2005. Their star goalie, Noora Raty, made 58 saves in an historic 3-1 win over the U.S. at the Four Nations Cup in November,
However, here in Sochi, Finland has taken 13 minors so far, second-highest in the tournament, and has conceded more power play goals than anyone else: one against U.S., one against Canada, and two against Switzerland. All came at critical stages of the game.
Raty has suggested that her nation tends to play worse against lower-calibre opponents. The Finns can’t take too many penalties in the quarter-finals. Granted, it’s hard to read much into a Swedish power play that has clicked once in a tournament-low five man advantage opportunities, but why take a chance?
Swedish hopes lie between the pipes
When the Swedes upset the United States 3-2 in the famous semi-final shootout in Turin 2006, goalie Kim Martin Hasson carried the team on her back with a virtuoso 37-save performance.
Eight years later, Sweden still relies heavily on its goaltending. While Valentina Wallner has played two games to Martin Hasson’s one in these Olympics, the two have combined to give their country the best save percentage in the tournament at 97.1.
When you can only beat Japan 1-0, you need something close to perfection between the pipes.
Swiss need to lock it down
If the Swiss are to derail Russia’s hopes of playing for a medal, they’ll have to stop giving up so many shots on goal. It’s a simple reality.
Facing the North American teams, obviously, has led to the majority of the shots against. But the Finns were also able to muster 34 shots in their 4-3 overtime win over Switzerland.
Beleaguered netminder Florence Schelling needs some more support, having already faced 156 shots – 44 more than her nearest competitor, Finland’s Raty. She hasn’t had her best numbers in comparison with earlier tournaments, but her 5.91 GAA and 88.4 save percentage aren’t solely her responsibility.
Russia's ship could be steadier
Russia won three straight games to top Group B, so that’s certainly mission accomplished so far.
Within each game, however, they’ve had their ups and downs. Similar to the official Sochi Olympic slogan, the Russian women have either been “Hot” or “Cool.”
Before beating Germany 4-1, they trailed for three-quarters of the game. Against underdog Japan, they couldn’t extend a 1-0 lead despite enjoying three power plays, and then allowed the Japanese to tie it up at the start of the third before finally getting the winner from Alexandra Vafina with less than 10 minutes left. The Russians came out blazing against Sweden, but let their opponents stay in the game till Yekaterina Smolentseva added the 3-1 insurance marker at 18:07 of the third.
Will general manager Alexei Yashin’s squad discover the level of consistency they need to become “Yours” in terms of capturing their fans’ hearts with a medal? Lapses in concentration or a feeling of panic or frustration when things aren’t going right could have far more serious consequences as the level of Russia’s opponents increases.