It’ll be another unforgettable all-North American battle at the National Indoor Stadium on Sunday (12:10 local start time). Let’s dive into 11 big questions about the women’s final.
1) How much does pre-Olympic planning mean?
The Canadians put their players into a full pre-tournament bubble in Calgary before flying to Beijing. In case of emergency, they also brought along a taxi squad (Victoria Bach, Jaime Bourbonnais, Kristin O'Neill, Julia Gosling).
The U.S. didn’t have a bubble or a taxi squad. Plans to replace veteran superstar Brianna Decker, who broke her leg in the opener versus Finland, with Britta Curl fell through. And meanwhile, the Canadians have gotten back premier playmaker Melodie Daoust, the MVP of the 2018 Olympics and 2021 Women’s Worlds, who was hurt in Game One against Switzerland.
If the Americans can pull out a gold medal victory under these challenging circumstances, they deserve full credit. If the Canadians triumph, GM Gina Kingsbury and her players may point back to the groundwork that was laid at Hockey Canada’s headquarters.
“We’ve prepared all year for this and worked so hard, so we’re going to be ready to go into that final game and really just give it our all,” said four-time Canadian Olympian Rebecca Johnston.
2) Will Marie-Philip Poulin score again?
At age 30, Marie-Philip Poulin is the only hockey player – female or male – to score in three Olympic gold medal games. All five of those goals have come against the Americans.
The legend of “Captain Clutch” is already well-established, and it went up another notch with her OT winner at August’s Women’s Worlds in Calgary. But if Poulin scores again on Sunday, she becomes untouchable. We won’t see another player score in four Olympic finals.
3) Will new scoring records be set?
“It doesn’t matter what the score is,” said Canada’s Brianne Jenner. “If we haven’t scored yet or if we’ve got nine, we’re trying to play the way that we want to play.”
That mentality goes a long way toward explaining why coach Troy Ryan’s team has racked up an all-time record 54 goals at these Olympics, eclipsing the U.S.’s second-place total of 28. It also heightens the chances of brand-new scoring records being set on Sunday.
In the 10-3 semi-final romp over Switzerland, Jenner tied the Winter Games single-tournament record of nine goals established by fellow Canadian Meghan Agosta (the 2010 MVP) and Switzerland’s Stefanie Marty in Vancouver. Rookie Olympic sensation Sarah Fillier sits at eight goals.
Meanwhile, Sarah Nurse has tied Hayley Wickenheiser’s single-tournament assists record (12) from 2006, and Natalie Spooner is right behind her (11 assists). Poulin and Claire Thompson – who has already set a new record for most points by a defender at one Olympics (12) – are in striking range as well (10 assists apiece).
Finally, Nurse (16 points) and Poulin and Spooner (14 points apiece) all have a legitimate shot at breaking Wickenheiser’s points record (17) from 2006.
To be fair, we should note that Canada is playing seven games in Beijing under the new 10-team format, compared to just five games at past Olympics. Feelings around “running up the score” have also evolved. Evidently, when Canada beat Sweden 4-1 in the 2006 final, it wasn’t pushing for extra offence. In the third period, shots only favoured Canada 4-3. Nonetheless, these are remarkable offensive achievements in 2022.
4) Is Canada having “too much fun”?
Consider that back in the day, even greeting U.S. rivals off the ice or wearing jeans for a team night out was frowned upon. Ask retired Team Canada greats like Cassie Campbell or Sami Jo Small what coaches Daniele Sauvageau or Mel Davidson would have thought about players routinely posting lighthearted videos on TikTok or Twitter, had such technology existed 15 or 20 years ago. (Hint: probably not in favour.) Times have changed.
For fans of skill and creativity, this has been the most enjoyable Canadian national team of all time to watch. Just think of Claire Thompson’s genius stickhandling and playmaking to set up Blayre Turnbull’s goal in the 10-3 semi-final romp over Switzerland.
The leeway that Ryan has given his players – both to revel in the Beijing experience and to take chances offensively as long as they take care of their own end – has paid off. Nonetheless, will winning four out of six games by double digits leave the Canadians a tad complacent heading into the final? It was mildly worrisome to see them concede three goals to the Swiss, with due respect to the dynamic duo of Alina Muller and Lara Stalder.
“The fun we have on the ice – obviously there are times when we have a little more trouble in our zone, but we still manage to play with a smile and have fun,” said Poulin. “That filter we’ve created where everyone’s ready to go says a lot.”
“I know going into the championship [game] we will have to tighten some things up defensively,” Nurse added.
5) Can Hilary Knight complete her mission?
Hilary Knight, the longtime face of American women’s hockey, has led the way (5+4=9) in Beijing. The 2018 Olympic gold medalist and eight-time World Champion doesn’t have much left to prove in her fourth (and likely final) Olympics, but she’s playing like she does.
She’s been a central figure in the last two Olympic finals. She was in the penalty box for taking down Hayley Wickenheiser in overtime when Poulin scored the winner in Sochi. In PyeongChang, she got the opening U.S. goal on a nice deflection, but was also foiled by goalie Shannon Szabados in the shootout when she had the game on her stick.
So it’ll be fascinating to see what Knight – who is well-equipped to move on to the next stage of life with a big platform if she so desires – produces on Sunday.
6) Will Alex Carpenter and Megan Bozek get “triple vengeance”?
There’s a lot on the line for every American in the gold medal game, but Alex Carpenter, 27, and Megan Bozek, 30, have endured a uniquely difficult path to get here.
They are among the six returning players from Sochi who suffered the most shocking and difficult U.S. final defeat ever.
Yet equally stunning was the fact that they were the last two cuts from the 2018 Olympic gold-medal team. Most observers had reckoned they were locks for PyeongChang, especially as Carpenter led the 2014 squad with four goals and Bozek boasts the sport’s hardest shot.
And thirdly, these teammates with the KRS Vanke Rays of the Russian Women’s Hockey League are also looking for payback after Canada ended America’s reign as five-time world champs last year. Triple vengeance, here we come! Or not?
7) Will the U.S.’s young aces finally break out?
At the Women’s Worlds in Calgary, one silver lining for the silver-medalist Americans was strong performances by senior IIHF rookies.
Power forward Grace Zumwinkle roofed pucks with abandon, and the 22-year-old’s four goals tied Knight for the team lead. Abbey Murphy, 19, the only player to score in three straight U18 Women’s Worlds gold medal games apart from Kendall Coyne Schofield, tallied two goals.
However, in Beijing, the next-level magic just hasn’t happened yet. Through six games, Zumwinkle has been limited to one goal (22 shots), while Murphy is stuck at one assist (15 shots). They’re both averaging just 10:28 of ice time, but should have more to give.
This was also supposed to be a coming-out party for the tough and talented Abby Roque, 24. The University of Wisconsin star is averaging 17:11 a night, but has only had one goal (an empty-netter) and an assist.
The weight of winning Olympic gold shouldn’t rest primarily on the shoulders of these youngsters. But against the Canadian offensive juggernaut, the U.S. will likely need more than just production from veterans.
8) How many defenders will the U.S. use?
When you’ve got superstar rearguards like Cayla Barnes, Megan Keller, and Lee Stecklein at your disposal, naturally they get the lion’s share of ice time. However, U.S. coach Joel Johnson’s deployment of talented newcomers like Caroline Harvey and Jincy Dunne is raising some eyebrows.
Harvey, 19, tallied three points in her 2021 Women’s Worlds debut, and Dunne, 24, a former Ohio State captain and U18 Women’s Worlds mainstay, had two assists in Calgary. Regardless, they played 8:55 and 0:00 respectively in the 3-2 overtime loss to Canada in the gold medal game. So far, it looks like history is repeating itself in Beijing.
When Canada beat the U.S. 4-2 in Group A action, Dunne was limited to 6:52 and Harvey to 0:55. To shelter one young defender against world-class opposition is understandable. Canadian rookie Ella Shelton logged just 2:07 in that game. But two?
Neither Harvey nor Dunne got on the ice in the 4-1 playoff wins over Czechia and Finland. (Harvey, in fact, hasn't played since taking a cross-checking penalty versus Canada that led to Brianne Jenner's opening power play goal.) It makes you wonder if anything will change in the final.
In 2018, blueline newcomers had a meaningful role in the 2018 gold-medal win over Canada. Sidney Morin logged 15:07 (despite not getting a shift in overtime) and Kali Flanagan played 10:57.
Every Canadian forward is dangerous. They’ve all scored in Beijing, except Jill Saulnier. With Canada’s ability to roll four strong lines, it’s worth wondering whether five U.S. defenders are sufficient or whether more are needed.
9) Will a goalie steal the show?
Not every U.S.-Canada gold medal game is an overtime nail-biter. Plenty of players here can still recall the 2015 Women’s Worlds final in Malmo, Sweden, where Canada fought back from a 5-2 deficit, only to see the U.S. triumph 7-5.
So of course, it’s possible we’ll end up raving about goalies again, as we did in 2018 after Canada’s Shannon Szabados fought through injuries to make 39 saves and the U.S.’s Maddie Rooney saved the day with her golden shootout stop on Meghan Agosta.
The U.S., as is its wont, has used all three of its goalies. However, veteran Alex Cavallini, who never played in PyeongChang, made a good case for herself with 25 saves, several of the difficult variety, in the Finland semi-final.
“It was really fun to play in that game, watching the team continue to work, battle in front of me, blocking shots,” Cavallini said. “It made my job pretty easy.”
10) Could special teams turn the tide?
At the 2021 Women’s Worlds, all teams looked rusty with the woman advantage. The Czechs led the way, clicking at just 20.8 percent.
At the 2022 Olympics, Canada has cranked up the heat to convert at 45.4 percent to the U.S.’s 23 percent. Still, special teams haven’t been all-important.
Jenner opened the scoring on the power play when Canada beat the Americans in Group A. Barnes drew first blood on the PP versus Finland in the semi-finals. However, the Canadians remarkably didn’t get a single power play goal in their 10-3 win over Switzerland.
The gold medal game is more likely to be decided 5-on-5. Or 3-on-3, should we wind up in the first Olympic women’s final with unlimited sudden-death overtime.
11) Who will win the gold medal?
While it certainly wouldn’t be an “upset” if the U.S. were to repeat as Olympic champs, the simplest way to put is that Canada looks about twice as likely to win as the Americans.
The Canadians have scored twice as many goals, both head-to-head and in the tournament overall. In the Rivalry Series from October to December, Canada won four games to the U.S.’s two. Ryan’s team has enjoyed a seemingly unstoppable momentum since the 2021 Women’s Worlds started.
Still, you just never know when these two archrivals get together. Get ready for greatness.