Sweden trailed France by a goal nearly halfway through the game, but rallied for an important 2-1 win on Sunday in Espoo. The winless French are relegated to Division I.
Pernilla Winberg scored the second-period winner, and Melinda Olsson also tallied for Sweden, which lost its opener to Germany 2-1 in a shootout and then fell 5-3 to the Czechs.
"We had some ups and downs," said Winberg, a four-time Olympian who is playing in her 12th IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship. "All teams here are good. So all the games are going to be tough. But I think we did the hard work out there that we needed to win."
Lara Escudero scored for France, which has zero points in three tries despite delivering a valiant effort. The French complete their preliminary round against Germany on Monday.
"I'm very proud of this team," said French assistant captain Lore Baudrit. "I think we played a very great game. We looked at Sweden face to face. I'm very proud today, because yes, we lost and we're going down, but I think it's good for the future, because now we know we can play against Sweden."
The Swedes now have four points in Group B, but their quarter-final hopes are still in jeopardy. They have one game left on Tuesday against Japan, which has three points and two games left. The Japanese also face the group-leading Czechs on Monday.
"I expect a lot of speed," Swedish captain Emma Nordin said of the Japanese. "They're fast and structured. They also have some individual skilled players. But so do we. It'll be a tight game, like yesterday against the Czechs, and against Germany. All the games are tight and intense. We just need to be there and trust ourselves and our game plan."Germany, which has five points, has two games left. The Germans play their last Group B game against the Czechs on Tuesday. Only the top three teams in Group B advance to the quarter-finals.
Tight races like this are a sign of the increasing parity in international women’s hockey. It's why the IIHF instituted the new 10-team format at this tournament and received IOC approval to send 10 teams to the 2022 Beijing Olympics too.
Facing an urgent situation, both teams started their number one goalies. Sara Grahn made her third straight start for Sweden and Caroline Baldin got the call for France. Baldin gave her team a chance, as shots favoured Sweden 40-20.
"She's amazing," said Baudrit. "Last season, for me, we won [Division I] because she played a very big World Championship. Today the world can see she's a very good goalie. It was just 2-1. I think she played very well."
The Swedish attack sputtered early on, as most shots sent Baldin’s way were of the tentative variety. Assistant captain Josefine Holmgren was sent off at 7:15 for an open-ice hit in her own end that would have been OK for Paul Holmgren (no relation) with the 1980 Philadelphia Flyers, but not at the Women’s Worlds.
Meanwhile, the French checked diligently and took away shooting lanes. They jumped into their first lead of these Women’s Worlds at 15:18 off a faceoff in the Swedish end. After a Baudrit shot was blocked, Escudero surprised Grahn on the follow-up. It was the high point of coach Gregory Tarle’s team’s best period here in Espoo.
France might have dodged a bullet early in the second period when an apparent defender’s hand on the puck in the goal crease went undetected. Finally, at 6:55, Melinda Olsson grabbed a loose puck next to the crease as the French defenders got crossed up, and she roofed it past Baldin’s glove for the tying goal.
"We have a strong confidence in the group," said Nordin. "We trust in each other. I felt like, 'We're not going to lose this.' We managed to win the game."
The Swedes made it 2-1 at 14:01. In tight, Nordin put the puck off the post behind the French goalie. The blue-and-yellow forwards frantically dug for the rebound and Winberg got it over the line.
"The puck was loose, and I thought it was a goal at first," Winberg said. "But since it was loose, I just went to the net and tried to get it in."
It wasn't as famous as Winberg's shootout winner against the Americans in the 2006 Olympic semi-final shootout, but it was what's needed for now.
In the third period, as penalties piled up, France got an extended 4-on-3 power play that turned into a 5-on-3, but the Swedes bore down and killed it off. Les Bleues pulled Baldin for the extra attacker at 17:46, but to no avail, despite storming Grahn's cage. There is still some hope for the Damkronorna, who have never been relegated from the elite division.
What about France's outlook? Baudrit said: "We know we are done, but we want to win one game, just because I think we can. Team France never gives up. Today we had a game and we played 100 percent because we wanted to win. One game, two games, if we can."