The 1960’s pop hit “The Impossible Dream” talks about having to “fight the unbeatable foe.” In 2019, the Finnish women know Canada is not unbeatable. Most of them were part of the 4-3 round-robin victory over Canada at the Women’s Worlds in Plymouth, Michigan two years ago.
However, considering their all-time record against the motherland of hockey sits at one win and 22 losses since 1990, it does mean that the host Finns are long shots to win the early semi-final in Espoo.
Seeking their first world title since 2012, the Canadians might be hankering for a golden rematch with the defending Olympic and world champion Americans, but they won’t take Finland lightly. They know they’re facing the world’s third-best team.
“I think they're always a tough team to play against,” said top Canadian scorer Natalie Spooner. “They're physical and they're good. We've got to bring our A game every time we play against them and get on [goalie] Noora [Raty] early and take her eyes away too."
That said, there is cause to believe that Saturday could witness another big-time upset in international women’s hockey – arguably not as unlikely as Sweden’s 2006 Olympic semi-final ouster of the Americans. And pulling it off on home ice could be an historic turning point for the Nordic country with just 5,858 registered female players to Canada’s 88,500.
In the big picture, just how much would it mean for Finland to knock Canada off and get to its first gold medal game ever?
Coach Pasi Mustonen quipped: “I guess everybody wishes that except the Canadians.”
Here are 5 reasons why Finland could beat Canada.
1) Absence of Poulin
Taking on the captaincy in the absence of Marie-Philip Poulin, Brianne Jenner has done everything you could possibly ask of her. The 27-year-old is in a four-way tie for the tournament lead in points (eight). Jenner is playing tremendous two-way hockey, leading the tournament with a 73.56 faceoff percentage. She’s brought the best out of rookie linemate Loren Gabel. And she is coming off a career CWHL season and a championship with the Calgary Inferno.
However, you can’t replace Poulin. The only woman to score in three straight Olympic finals, she is the most clutch player in the history of this sport. Poulin is in her prime, too, finishing as the CWHL scoring champion with Les Canadiennes de Montreal (50 points). She means what Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, or Connor McDavid means to the Canadian men’s team.
The Finns didn’t create this situation, but they could take advantage of it.
2) Battle readiness
Expect a loud, proud home crowd at Espoo’s Metro Areena. That’s what the Finns enjoyed when they took it to the Americans and carried a 2-1 lead into the third period. Even though the U.S. then exploited Finnish errors en route to a 6-2 win, the Finns had established the hard, persistent, daring game they need to play in those first two stanzas.
Conversely, Suomi looked deflated after spotting Canada a 2-0 lead by the 14:00 mark of their 6-1 round-robin loss. “We weren't mentally ready for that game,” admitted Mustonen. “We will be next time. When you end up in your own zone and you can't even win the faceoffs, finally you have no chance against North America.”
Michelle Karvinen reinforced the message: “I think we need to be a little bit smarter with the puck. I think we were throwing it away a little bit too much last time, and we need to be confident. We need to be physical as well. It's a physical, fast team, so we can't just let them walk around us. We need to battle.”
3) Canadian D may be vulnerable
Canada’s Laura Fortino, a 2018 Olympic all-star, is certainly capable of handling the team-leading average ice time of 22:51 she’s been handed so far. The 28-year-old’s fellow Olympic all-star blueliner, Jenni Hiirikoski, is logging 24:06 for Finland, after all.
However, further down the lineup, it remains to be seen if Cornell University youngsters Micah Zandee-Hart and Jaime Bourbonnais, the seventh defender, have fully acclimatized to this tournament as newbies. In the 3-2 loss to the U.S., they were victimized by Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield on the opening two goals in ways that now-absent PyeongChang veterans Meaghan Mikkelson and Lauriane Rougeau would likely not have been.
If Mustonen can win the matchups, it could spell trouble for the red Maple Leaf.
4) Dominant veteran Finns are heating up
Commenting on Hiirikoski, the Finnish captain, and Raty, 2018 Olympic MVP Melodie Daoust said: “I would say their oldest player on defence is really talented and their goalie. We need to put pressure on them, play physical and have us be in front of [Raty].”
With a 2.79 GAA and 90.83 save percentage, Raty hasn’t played her absolute best yet at this tournament. However, she delivered what was needed with 16 saves on 17 shots in the 3-1 quarter-final win over the Czechs.
Meanwhile, Hiirikoski and Karvinen jointly took over the game with three points apiece, skating miles and imposing their will. Hiirikoski, 32, has already established a new personal Women’s Worlds for points with eight, eclipsing her previous high of five (2012, 2017).
After beating the Czechs, Mustonen said: “We won the battles, and we didn't win the battles last time against Canada.” Now is the perfect time for these veterans to peak.
5) Even the kids can score
Injured Sanni Hakala is out of the lineup for the rest of the tournament, but her teenaged linemates, Elisa Holopainen (2+1=3) and Viivi Vainikka (1+3=4), are continuing to live up to the thrill-a-minute reputations they forged as U18 stars.
Will Mustonen unleash their blinding speed and increase their ice time (averaging about 11 minutes per game) to catch Canada off guard? The Finnish coach loves to innovate and roll the dice, and he knows he’s in a no-lose situation. Sure, a blowout loss would be disheartening, but the possibility of a gold medal game berth surely merits letting the kids try their luck if the veterans don’t give Finland a cushion.
“You can just see our young girls, how they were playing against the U.S.,” said Karvinen. “It might as well be them who's doing the goals on Saturday. So I think that's a fact we can take with us. We can be confident that anyone can do it.”
Confidence is contagious. On the men’s side, Finland has seen the ripple effect with World Junior titles in 2014, 2016, and 2019 and U18 titles in 2016 and 2018. Now, it just might be the women’s turn to ditch their bronze medal routine.
We’re about to find out if the Finns are ready, as “The Impossible Dream” puts it, “to fight for the right, without question or pause, to be willing to march into hell, for a heavenly cause.” That’s the way you win gold, even if it’s 2019 and not the 1960’s.