Ten days after the U.S. defeated Finland 6-2 in the marquee matchup on April 4, this transformative IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship will hit a crescendo with the same two teams battling for the gold medal.
For the Olympic champion Americans, it’s a chance to rule the world for the fifth straight time. For the underdog Finns, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win their first final in IIHF history on home ice.
Who could play a big role in the first gold medal game ever to not feature two North American teams? Let’s take our best shot with 10 faces to watch.
1) Hilary Knight
The biggest personality in women’s hockey has come up big since Day One in Espoo. Leading the Women’s Worlds with seven goals (including three game-winners) and 11 points, she has put on a show. The 29-year-old has answered the critics who wondered about her reduced production with the CWHL’s Les Canadiennes de Montreal this season. And capturing her eighth Women’s Worlds gold medal would carry a special resonance for Knight at this point in history.
“It's the most exciting sport right now,” said Knight. “It's phenomenal to be a part of it, obviously giving credit to all the foundations that the women before us laid. We're going to continue to trek. You're going to see different looks and different teams come World Championships. The tournament's bigger now, and it's just an exciting time to be in the sport.”
2) Noora Raty
The Americans didn’t hesitate when asked to identify Finland’s key player, who is coming off a 43-save performance against Canada. U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said: “She's arguably the best to play the game and we're going to have to get pucks behind her.”
Goalie Alex Rigsby added: “I've been playing against her since college and it's always a goalie battle. It's fun. Obviously she had a great game today, pushing her team forward to the championship.”
For Finland, it’s Raty or bust on Sunday. Will she skate out of her net clapping just before the final horn again?
3) Kendall Coyne Schofield
Since the PyeongChang Olympics, Coyne Schofield has been profiled in the New York Times, played summer hockey with NHLers, landed a hockey analyst gig with NBC, won an NWHL championship with the Minnesota Whitecaps, and starred in the NHL All-Star Skills fastest skater event, among other feats.
Most importantly, though, she’s been a consistent role model for her U.S. teammates since taking over the “C” from Meghan Duggan, who has not played since marrying ex-Canadian star Gillian Apps. In the opening win over Finland, Coyne Schofield led her team with three points.
Expect the 2017 Women’s Worlds points leader to step up again.
4) Jenni Hiirikoski
The 32-year-old Finnish captain has put in a landmark performance. Frankly, she is neck-and-neck with Knight for MVP consideration.
She has already tied the single-tournament record for points by a defender: 10 points, set by fellow Finn Kirsi Hanninen (5+5=10) at the 1999 Women’s Worlds in Hameelinna.
After leading the SDHL with 278 shots for Lulea HF this season, Hiirikoski is driving the power play with her centre point shots. And despite playing a tournament-high 24:36 per game, she has taken zero penalty minutes.
5) Brianna Decker
By Decker’s high standards, it’s been a quiet tournament so far. The scrappy, talented centre has just five points (2+3=5). Yet consider this: in Decker’s six consecutive Women’s Worlds finals since 2011, she is a point-per-game player (4+2=6).
It would be most unusual for the 27-year-old – a three-time tournament all-star and the 2017 MVP – not to have an impact on Sunday.
6) Riikka Sallinen
It is possible that this home-ice gold medal game will mark the final appearance of Sallinen (previously Valila, nee Nieminen) with the Lionesses. The 45-year-old IIHF Hall of Famer, famed for her commitment to conditioning, is the last remaining player from the inaugural 1990 Women’s Worlds and the 1998 Olympics, which she led in scoring.
Sallinen remains productive with four assists so far. She will be ultra-motivated on Sunday. If it’s her swan song, Finnish fans hope she gets a golden sunset.
7) Alex Carpenter
Carpenter, who was infamously cut from the 2018 Olympic team, has quietly put together her most prolific Women’s Worlds ever (2+5=7). She led the 2014 U.S. Olympic team with four goals and she scored the 1-0 gold medal game-winner at the 2016 Women’s Worlds. The 25-year-old forward with the lethal shot has earned good money in China over the past two seasons, but earning a fifth gold medal would be the kind of balm that cash can’t buy.
Why would you not want Alex Carpenter on your team?
8) Michelle Karvinen
The 2014 Olympic points leader had a slow start in Espoo, going -3 with zero points on Day One versus America. But Karvinen is back big-time with four points in her last two games, including assisting on Susanna Tapani’s game-winners versus both the Czechs and the Canadians. A team player and difference-maker, the Danish-Finnish power forward is stoked to win a shinier medal after collecting four Women’s Worlds bronze medals and two Olympic bronze medals.
“We’ve been working so hard for so many years now,” said Karvinen. “It's not just one good game. It's something we actually have earned. We worked, worked, and worked for so many years. So I'm extremely proud of everybody who's been involved.”
9) Cayla Barnes
Woman for woman, the American defence is deeper and more dangerous than Finland’s – than everyone else’s, in fact. However, in terms of standouts, the Metro Areena has witnessed a coming-out party for Barnes. At 20, the Boston college star already has three U18 gold medals and an Olympic gold. She brings winning and a maturity beyond her years.
Two of our three experts on our pre-tournament Women’s Worlds media panel identified Barnes as a player to watch, and the smooth-skating puck-mover has delivered. She’s tied with Megan Keller, a 2019 Patty Kazmaier Award finalist, for the most points (6) among U.S. blueliners.
10) Ronja Savolainen
Savolainen is an amazing workhorse and an absolute wildcard.
Just 21, the tall defender saved her best performance – so far – for the biggest moment. With two goals and an assist in the 4-2 semi-final win over Canada, Savolainen played 27:01 – just seven seconds shy of perennial ice time leader Jenni Hiirikoski, with whom she plays in Lulea. In the third period, she led all skaters with 10:44.
The Helsinki native can be a polarizing figure who grabs the spotlight versus North American opponents.
At the 2017 Women’s Worlds, she got the late winner in Finland’s first-ever victory (4-3) over Canada in group play. At the 2018 Olympics, she was on the receiving end of a reckless hit by U.S. captain Meghan Duggan that went unpenalized in a 5-0 semi-final loss. And last night in Espoo, in addition to her offensive production, Savolainen laid a controversial hit, also unpenalized, on Canada’s Blayre Turnbull, who left the game.
What will the gold medal game bring?