For all the marbles
by Andrew Podnieks|04 SEP 2022
The United States beat Canada, 5-2, in the preliminar round, one of the goals coming off a nice tip by Kelly Pannek from her knees.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
The Canada-United States women's hockey rivalry is unlike any other. The winning team feels like it has won double-triple-quadruple gold, and the losing team feels like it just finished in 85th place. The difference between winning and losing isn't slim – it's a chasm. 

There is no doubt that two weeks ago, when the Women’s Worlds started, Canada had earned the right to be called the favourites to win gold. There is also no doubt that since then the U.S. has taken that right away, and now it is the southern rivals that are favourites, albeit by the usual tiny margins we associate with these great hockey powers. 

So, what has happened for this change to have occurred? What can we expect tonight when they face off again with gold on the line? Let’s take a look.

For Canada’s coach, Troy Ryan, he woke up this morning with two main thoughts in his cranium – how do we stop Taylor Heise, and how do we get the power play clicking? In the first case, Heise has set the tournament on fire. The 22-year-old won the Patty Kazmaier this past season with her home state Minnesota Golden Gophers. She had played in three U18s, 2016-18, winning gold all three years and being named MVP in the final of those.

But this year she has been explosive, and has 7 goals and 18 points so far, both tops at the tournament and the second-highest point total ever. Ryan can look to his team’s 5-2 loss and see she had a lone assist in that game, so Canada did something right then. But she has been on a tear since and requires special attention if Canada is to win.

And then there is Canada’s wonky power play, which scored yesterday against Switzerland after an 0-for-11 drought. The power play must be a threat, and the Americans must feel intimidated by it. If not, the U.S. can play with impunity and greater physical confidence, knowing a few fouls won’t cost them the game.
What has the U.S. done to become the favourites? Two things. First, they have scored at will. Second, they beat Canada convincingly, 5-2, in the round robin. Their 52 goals is second-most ever at a Women’s Worlds (Canada had 61 in 1990), and although many of those were against the lower-ranked nations, Canada hasn’t won as convincingly.

Incoming coach John Wroblewksi changed lines after the Olympics, and now Hilary Knight is skating alongside another newcomer, Hannah Bilka. This has proved a deadly combination. Knight has 9 points and Bilka 12 so far. And then there is the Heise-Alex Carpenter-Amanda Kessel line, which has been lighting up the tournament. And Kendall Coyne Schofield, no slouch in the offensive end, has been playing with Kelly Pannek and Lacey Eden and has also contributed to the scoresheet. Bottom line, the scorers have scored, the newcomers have fit right in, and the engine is chugging along at high speed.

In fact, the biggest challenge for Wroblewski is that his only real message to his players can be to keep playing this way, which is often difficult. Sometimes it’s easier to find glaring weaknesses, knowing you have the players who can right the ship. That being said, better to have the momentum than not, and the Americans certainly have that.

The goalies are likely to be Nicole Hensley (USA) and Ann-Renee Desbiens (CAN). These two faced each other in last year’s WW final, Desbiens coming out on top. In Beijing, it was Desbiens versus Alex Cavallini, and Desbiens won that, too. Neither goalie has been busy in Denmark except in their earlier head-to-head. In that game Desbiens was great in the first period and Hensley a bit suspect, but in the second and third it was the other way around. The steadier goalie will certainly be a major reason for her team winning gold.

Both coaches have encouraged their defenders to become an integral part of the attack, but the Americans have been way more successful. They have scored 10 goals and added a whopping 32 assists, and if the back end can contribute 42 points in six games, well, something is working very, very well.

Canada’s blueliners, by contrast, have scored just five goals and added 19 assists, their 24 points nearly half the U.S. total. In truth, Canada misses Claire Thompson enormously, her role in Beijing central to the team’s success. And Caroline Harvey, who saw precious little ice time in Beijing, has been given a leading role by Wroblewski and responded in spades (three goals, eight points, 17:38 TOI a game).

If Wroblewski has a worry, it’s that Canada has a lot more to give – can he prevent that from happening for one more game, or will Canada explode? Captain Marie-Philip Poulin has been very good, but it’s clear she hasn’t run her best race yet. Sarah Nurse hasn’t contributed the way she did in Beijing, and neither has Brianne Jenner, who has but one goal and three points through six games after scoring 11 points in Beijing.

Canada’s last two major victories have been because of speed, relentless speed going hard to the net, every single shift. But it’s the U.S. that has played like that here in Herning. Something’s gotta change, or not, and that’s the team that will win. If the U.S. continues to play as it has been doing, they’ll undoubtedly win. If Canada can get their Beijing mojo back, they stand the better chance.

Prop up the pillows, shake out the snacks, sit back, and enjoy. This gold medal game is going to be a dandy.