10 gold medal storylines to follow
by Lucas Aykroyd|31 AUG 2021
"Which side will get to the net better?" is one of the 10 storylines we're tracking as archrivals Canada and the U.S. do battle in the 2021 Women's Worlds gold medal game.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
It’s tough to believe it’s been more than three years since the U.S. and Canadian women last clashed in an IIHF gold medal game. The 3-2 American shootout win in PyeongChang, Korea in 2018 ended a 20-year Olympic drought.

On the Women’s Worlds side, you have to go all the way back to 7 April 2017, when Hilary Knight’s overtime goal in Plymouth, Michigan gave the U.S. a 3-2 victory and their fourth consecutive title. (They edged host Finland 2-1 in a shootout in 2019.)

But right now, as the North American teams get ready to renew their classic border rivalry in Calgary, there’s no shortage of great storylines for the 2021 gold medal game. Here are 10 questions on the minds of women’s hockey fans worldwide.

1) Is the U.S. ready to take revenge?

Canada ended the U.S.’s 29-game Women’s Worlds winning streak with a 5-1 thrashing. It wasn’t close territorially or physically, let alone on the scoreboard. All four Canadian lines were faster, smarter, and better, underlined by Jamie Lee Rattray’s two goals in just 9:36 of ice time.

In all three zones, the U.S. has looked much stronger in its quarter-final wins over Japan (10-2) and Finland (3-0). But is coach Joel Johnson’s team up to speed now? Or is this a mirage that will be exposed by the Canadians?

The U.S. will have to come out with a “chip on our shoulder,” as Hilary Knight put it, or revenge might not be in the cards.

2) Can Canada play with the same pace?

Taking it to the Americans from the opening whistle was the key to success in the group stage. Coach Troy Ryan’s team has continued to pour it on in the playoffs, outshooting Germany 52-3 in a 7-0 quarter-final win and Switzerland 65-10 in a 4-0 semi-final win. There are no shifts off for this group.

One key has been spreading around the minutes. Nine Canadians are averaging between 14 and 16 minutes per game, and defender Jocelyne Larocque is the only skater over 20 minutes (20:49).

More notably, not a single Canadian has an average shift length of over 50 seconds – whereas 15 Americans do. That’s a lot of fresh legs for the host nation, which is not likely to slow down.

3) Which side will get to the net better?

Canada ran wild around Alex Cavallini’s net before she was pulled after surrendering four goals in the U.S.’s round-robin loss. Throughout the playoffs, going to the dirty areas has been a mantra for the host team, eager to consign 2019’s bronze medal to the dustbin of history.

You saw it against Switzerland. Whether it was Natalie Spooner taking away Andrea Braendli’s eyes with the screen or Melodie Daoust scoring her second goal of the night through traffic, it definitely wasn’t about getting cute around the net.

The Americans, too, scored repeatedly from close range against Japan, and Alex Carpenter’s winning tip against Finland was a product of establishing body position in front. But the U.S. may still be better-suited to more east-west hockey and creative playmaking than the smashmouth hockey (frankly, very Albertan!) that Canada is delivering successfully.

4) Who will the goalies be?

The conventional pre-tournament wisdom for Canada had Ann-Renee Desbiens taking the reins, and she’s played well in her four starts (1.20 GAA, 90.2 save percentage), apart from surrendering three goals to Finland in the opener. With two shutouts on 15 total saves versus Switzerland (5-0) and Germany (7-0), Emerance Maschmeyer has done everything she could, but the nod likely goes to Desbiens.

For the Americans, it feels like the plan may have shifted since the tournament started, when Alex Cavallini (1.92 GAA, 88.2 save percentage) was clearly the designated starter. The 2019 gold medal goalie of record had her stumbles against both Canada and Japan.

Conversely, Joel Johnson was highly complimentary about Nicole Hensley, who, like Maschmeyer, has recorded two goose eggs, but against the superior Finns: “I want to tip my cap because it's a tough spot to walk in, after not starting the quarter-final, and start a semi-final at the World Championship. She deserves a lot of credit.”

Starting Cavallini again versus Canada may be a larger gamble than letting Hensley try to reprise her winning performance in the 2017 final.

5) Will Melodie Daoust double her pleasure?

Riding a five-game goal-scoring streak and leading the tournament in points (6+6=12), Melodie Daoust has been a joy to watch on Canada’s de facto second line alongside newcomer Sarah Fillier and Natalie Spooner. The 2014 Olympic gold medalist and 2018 Olympic MVP will surely get more MVP votes this year as well.

Daoust, 29, could double her pleasure. She has every opportunity to win both her first Women’s Worlds gold medal – her WW debut came in 2019 – and the scoring title. After spending injury-riddled years trying to impress the Hockey Canada braintrust, this is her time in the sun.

6) Can Hilary Knight make more history?

With 47 career goals and 80 points at the Women’s Worlds, Hilary Knight has surpassed Cammi Granato (78 points) as the all-time American scoring leader. It’s unlikely the 32-year-old legend will overtake Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser (86 points) for the overall lead, although catching Jayna Hefford (83 points) could happen.

Still, never put it past “Knighter” to make headlines on IIHF.com and beyond. Could she come out strong in the gold medal game and overshadow the top Canadians to claim her third Best Forward award or fourth all-star team berth? What if she gets a hat trick and leads the Women’s Worlds in goals for an all-time leading sixth time? Possibilities, possibilities.

7) Which veteran stars will seize the day?

Daoust and Knight are far from the only longtime luminaries at these Women’s Worlds. Another veteran might turn the tide in the final.

Marie-Philip Poulin would love to win a gold medal for the first time as Canada’s captain. Rebecca Johnston – who was omitted from the 2020 Nova Scotia roster and then had to rehab a ruptured Achilles tendon – is elevating her game at the right time. Natalie Spooner is playing as big as her effervescent personality, and Brianne Jenner has been a brilliant two-way force.

U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield and Brianna Decker still have another level to reach. Alex Carpenter is heating up with the opening goal in two consecutive playoff games. The towering Lee Stecklein is doing it all on defence with a career-high six points.

8) Which rookies will rise to the occasion?

Considering Sarah Fillier is being touted as Canada’s heir apparent to Marie-Philip Poulin, she’s the most likely candidate. The 21-year-old Princeton captain hasn’t looked out of place one iota (3+2=6), and Fillier has the complete toolkit to ensure this isn’t just a wonderful once-off. Newcomers Claire Thompson and Ella Shelton have revitalized the Canadian blue line.

For the Americans, Grace Zumwinkle has been the cream of the crop with her ability to bull her way to the net and roof the puck. The University of Minnesota captain, 22, is tied with Knight for the U.S. scoring lead (4+2=6). Forwards Abby Roque and Abbey Murphy might be saving the best for last, and the fact that defender Caroline Harvey has gotten opportunities to quarterback the power play without even having started college is jaw-dropping.

9) Who will win the gold medal?

Well, that’s the million-loonie question, isn’t it? (We’re in Canada.) The Americans came in as the favourites, but now Canada looks like the team to beat. The two-way commitment, intensity, and speed of Ryan’s squad – even when Poulin missed the first U.S. game with a neck-area injury – is night and day compared to 2019’s third-place team. The U.S., eager to tie Canada with its 10th all-time gold, looks a little more susceptible. But it could go either way. Expect a thriller.

10) What will be the takeaways for Beijing?

Nobody has disgraced themselves in Calgary, but there will be North American players who move up and down the rosters based on their performances.

Can the likes of Canada’s Fillier or the U.S.’s Harvey handle slightly expanded roles moving forward? Where do Canadian role forwards Laura Stacey and Kristin O’Neill fit in? How do you evaluate U.S. goalie Aerin Frankel or defender Natalie Buchbinder given that they never saw the ice?

Gold in Calgary is the focus right now, but we can’t wait to see what happens on an even bigger stage at the 2022 Olympics in February.