The hockey gods ordained that the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship would not witness back-to-back semi-final upsets. Sparked by Hilary Knight's five-point night, the U.S. hammered Russia 8-0 to advance to Sunday's gold medal game against host Finland, which defeated Canada 4-2 earlier.
"I think advantages and disadvantages sort of go out the window when it comes to the final game," said Knight. "They're going to have a home crowd. They're going to be jazzed up and ready to play us. We're going to be excited to play for another World Championship."
Knight, the ultimate power forward in this sport, leads the tournament with seven goals and 11 points.
It is the first Women’s Worlds final that won’t feature both North American superpowers. The only other comparable case is Sweden upsetting the U.S. in the 2006 Olympic semi-final before losing the gold medal game to Canada.
"It's not a big shocker to us," said U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield. "It's a championship game. It's anyone's game. We're playing for a gold medal and a World Championship. So I expect a phenomenal hockey game."
The current Americans, who are both reigning Olympic champions and four-time defending world champions, will face a different challenge in Finland. It's an exciting moment for international women's hockey, which moves one step closer to parity.
"Obviously, it's huge for the sport for Finland to come out and beat Canada tonight and go to the championship for the first time," said U.S. goalie Alex Rigsby.
With Sweden getting relegated and the Finns playing for gold, the inaugural 10-team Women’s Worlds has truly been a tournament of surprises.
In the semi-final, the U.S., which has won seven of the last eight Women's Worlds, outshot the Russians 49-11, and the result was never in doubt. The porous Russian defence was overwhelmed.
Russia will attempt to secure its fourth bronze medal (2001, 2013, 2016) in Women’s World history versus Canada. All the others came versus Finland.Of facing Canada, Russia's Alexandra Vafina said: "It's surprising for us, but I'm really glad for Team Finland to make this step forward. It's great, and good luck to them in the final game for the gold medal. For us, it will be hard to play against Canada, because you know they will be focused on the game and scoring. We need to work on that. It's not going to be an easy game. We're not going to give up. We will show the best we can."
Meanwhile, the Americans are chipping away at the record books here in Espoo.
Versus the Russians, Knight scored twice, including the first-period winner, and added three assists. The two-time Women's Worlds MVP now has 43 career goals at this tournament, just one goal back of the all-time leader, retired U.S. legend Cammi Granato. Knight wears #21 in honour of Granato, whose hockey camps she attended with Coyne Schofield as a youngster.
The semi-final was also Knight’s 51st Women’s Worlds game. That sets a new record for U.S. players, surpassing the previous joint record-holders, Jenny Potter and Angela Ruggiero.
"It means a lot," Knight said. "I played with those guys. Those guys sistered me and sort of mothered me through the process when I was a small teenager. It's a wild ride. I'm fortunate enough to be a part of this team for as long as I have been and be a part of this group in that room. It's extremely special and I'm humbled and honoured."
With her fourth win, Rigsby tied the record for most wins in one Women’s Worlds, which she shares with five other netminders.
"I had no idea about that," Rigsby said. "So you know, that's pretty cool! I'm just really humbled to have that confidence from our coaches to be able to go forward with me.."
Beyond Knight's brilliance, it was a balanced semi-final attack for America. Kelly Pannek had two goals and an assist, and Megan Bozek and Emily Pfalzer had a goal and an assist apiece. Annie Pankowski and Hayley Scamurra each potted a single. Dani Cameranesi chipped in a pair of assists.
The Americans emphasize focusing on themselves and sticking with their process, and that’s what yielded the opening goal at 11:07.
It was a simple play. Pannek came down the right side and unleashed a quick shot that Russian starter Anna Prugova couldn’t handle. Knight banged in the rebound. The 29-year-old is the only player at these Women’s Worlds who has scored in every game.
"I mean, the goals are whatever!" Knight said with a laugh. "To be honest, as long as we're winning and we're producing and we're executing our systems, that's what we need."
At 3:45 of the second period, Pankowski made it 2-0 when she muscled her way from the corner to the slot and scored with a floater through traffic. Knight dipsy-doodled past Russian defender Liana Ganeyeva and then centered it to a pinching Pfalzer for the 3-0 marker at 6:18.
Bozek powered a slapper through the goalie to put the U.S. up 4-0 at 9:59. And just 24 seconds later, Pannek darted into the zone and flung a bad-angle shot that somehow found the twine. That ended Prugova’s night, and Valeria Merkusheva came in.
"We still need to work on defence more, maybe be more close to each other and make the defensive zone look better," Vafina said. "But still, it was a good game, and those players are the best in the world."
Knight hammered a power play goal from the top of the right faceoff circle past Merkusheva to make it 6-0 at 18:13.
In the third period, Scamurra scored her first Women's Worlds goal. It was credited to the 2019 NWHL scoring champ from the Buffalo Beauts, after a video review put time back on the clock, at 6:50. Pannek rounded out the scoring, making it 8-0 at 11:33.
Looking forward, Knight said: "We need to win the World Championship. It doesn't matter how we do it. We just need to do it."
This was the 15th consecutive U.S. win over Russia at this tournament. The Americans have outscored Russian by a total of 138-8.