Get psyched for the semi-finals
by Lucas Aykroyd|12 JUN 2022
It may be a stretch to believe that Sweden can outduel the defending champion U.S. in the 2022 U18 Women's Worlds semi-finals. Pictured here are Sweden's Stina Andersson (#12) and the U.S.'s Maggie Scannell (#24).
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images
The 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship has featured its share of surprises, from Finland’s historic Day One 2-0 win over Canada to Slovakia’s 6-2 offensive explosion versus Germany to crack the quarter-finals.

However, traditionally at this tournament, the semi-finals are where the element of surprise goes to die. Twelve of the 13 gold medal games, dating back to the inaugural 2008 edition, have featured the U.S. and Canada.

The lone exception was 2018, when Canada – after falling 4-3 to Russia and 6-2 to the U.S. in the group stage – lost 4-3 in a semi-final shootout versus the Americans. That paved the way for the U.S.’s 9-3 gold medal victory over Sweden, while Canada settled for bronze by topping Russia 5-1.

With Finland facing Canada and Sweden taking on the Americans on Sunday, a semi-final upset by either Nordic country would break new ground.

Let’s preview these two games at the University of Wisconsin’s LaBahn Arena and gauge whether the North American superpowers are in fact unstoppable at this point.

Finland vs. Canada (14:30 local time)

If the Canadians had their druthers, they would have defeated the U.S. in the final group stage game – instead of suffering their most lopsided Women’s Worlds loss ever (7-0) – and gotten a bye to the semi-finals. However, playing that extra game and beating Slovakia 7-0 in the quarter-finals could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for coach Howie Draper’s team as they prepare to battle Finland.

Think of the 2010 Canadian Olympic men’s team. They weren’t firing on all cylinders in the group stage at Vancouver’s Canada Hockey Place, nipping Switzerland 3-2 on Sidney Crosby’s shootout winner and falling 5-3 to the archrival Americans. But for the qualification playoff game, Roberto Luongo replaced Martin Brodeur in net and the Canadians powered to a 8-2 victory over Norway. That got their systems in gear and restored their confidence, and of course, they ultimately beat the U.S. 3-2 on Crosby’s golden goal at 7:40 of overtime.

Now, of course the U18 women were expected to beat Slovakia, whose presence at this tournament was made possible through Russia’s non-participation. But it was still meaningful – both offensively and defensively – that Canada outshot its opponents 65-5.

Goalie Mari Pietersen provided a steadying presence. The quarter-final was also a confidence-booster for Etobicoke Dolphins teammates of hers, like assistant captain Sarah MacEachern (0+2=2), McKenna van Gelder (1+1=2), and Alyssa Regalado (1+0=1), to name just a few contributors. Defender Sara Swiderski had her best game with a team-leading +6 plus-minus rating and an assist. It was a genuine team effort.

“Every day, I think we become closer as a group, and we know our roles,” said Canada’s Ava Murphy. “We have to stick to them. We have to keep moving the puck and do everything we can to get pucks to the net and have bodies in front. I think that's how we're going to win.”

The Finns are going to have to hope they didn’t peak too early. Neither losing 5-0 to the U.S. nor blowing a two-goal lead late in the 4-3 defeat against Sweden is going to make their highlights package. Even in the 2-0 win over Canada, the Canadians controlled the play at 5-on-5 after the first period, and outshot Finland 40-17.

It’ll take another goddess-like goaltending performance like Emilia Kyrkko’s Day One shutout for coach Mira Kuisma’s team to pull off a second upset. 2022 Olympic bronze medalist Sanni Vanhanen is tied for the team lead in shots on goal (9) with  Oona Havana and Tilli Keranen, but has been limited to two assists. This is an important opportunity for the 16-year-old Vanhanen to showcase her skills and tenacity.

Special teams, frankly, haven’t been a highlight for either side. The Finns haven’t converted on the power play since Havana’s 2-0 goal on a 5-on-3 versus Canada, and the Canadians still don’t have a single power play goal. (Although they came close versus Slovakia when captain Brooke Disher’s PP goal was called back for goalie interference.)

Finland’s penalty-killing is the tournament’s worst so far (3 goals allowed on 8 disadvantages, 62.5 percent). But since Canada is tied with Sweden for the most penalties (21 minors apiece) and has the third-worst PK (5 goals allowed on 19 disadvantages, 73.6 percent), it’s particularly imperative for the favourites to keep their feet moving and not take lazy fouls that could open the door for Finland.

From the players to the coaching staff, Canada is excited to get a second crack at the Finns. Assistant coach Vicky Sunohara said: “What a great opportunity for us! We started out the tournament with some jitters. I think we were holding our sticks pretty tight. But to have the opportunity to play them again, I think we'll come out a little bit more loose. We know what to expect.”

Rounding into form, Canada should advance here, but there’s still a sliver of Finnish hope for another surprise.

U.S. vs. Sweden (18:30 local time)

Out of all the teams in Madison and Middleton, Sweden arguably has made the most improvement since being ingloriously defeated 6-1 by the U.S. on Day One.

Coach Madeleine Ostling’s team gave Canada a solid battle in a 3-1 loss despite getting outshot 56-34. The Swedes showed guts and character to rally for a 4-3 victory over Finland. They potted two goals with netminder Lisa Jonsson pulled for the extra attacker, including Jenna Raunio’s winner with eight seconds remaining. And then Raunio came through again with the game-deciding goal on the power play in the 2-1 quarter-final ouster of Czechia. It’s a feel-good story for blue-and-yellow fans.

“I think the first two games against the U.S. and Canada were really important for our game,” said Swedish captain Nicole Hall, who got her first goal of the tournament versus Czechia. “And then we have played against Finland like six times this season. So we knew that we can score against them, we can win against them, which we did. And now in the quarter-final, it's a ‘win or disappear’ game. So the only mindset we had was to win.”

Trouble is, the Americans also bring a winning mindset and the full toolkit to achieve their objectives. Under coach Katie Lachapelle, the defending champs haven’t trailed once in Madison, outscoring their opposition 18-1 in just three group-stage games. It’s wild to realize that the U.S. tallied more goals against 2020 silver medalist Canada than against Sweden.

Since Ebba Hedqvist’s early third-period goal in the opener, no pucks have gotten past either ultra-composed U.S. starter Annelies Bergmann – whose 0.50 GAA and 97.8 save percentage are tops among goalies with two or more games – or backup Ava McNaughton.

Sweden’s blue line has been an offensive driver, combining for 11 points. Among key contributors, Raunio (2+1=3) joins Tuva Kandell (1+3=4) and Mira Jungaker (0+2=2), who’s looked good in two straight games since returning to the lineup. But the deep U.S. defence, from the offensive ability of tournament defence scoring leader Sydney Morrow (0+7=7) to the mobility of the 180-cm, 72-kg Laney Potter, is awfully tough to match.

Up front, unless the Swedes can somehow contain the host nation's top line – all currently vying for all-star team berths – of Laila Edwards (4+3=7), Tessa Janecke (3+3=6) and Kirsten Simms (0+5=5), it’s going to be a tough night for Jonsson.

The Swedes cannot afford to take penalties against the tournament-best U.S. power play (46.6 percent). And if even they get a one-goal lead, going into a defensive shell as they did against the Czechs in the dying moments is not going to work against Lachapelle’s crew.

“We just need to play with discipline,” Jungaker said. “We need to focus on our stuff and not have so much respect for them. Like, we know they're good, but we need to play our game.”

Sweden will aim to weather the U.S. storm early on and take the crowd out of it with a goal or two against the flow of the play. However, the Americans grab an early 3-0 or 4-0 lead, as they did in the opener, it will be extraordinarily difficult – if not impossible – for the Swedes to come back.

It might be a tighter game than on Day One, but logic says the Americans will move on for a shot at an all-time record ninth U18 Women’s Worlds gold medal.