Ask the Experts
by Andrew Podnieks|12 APR 2023
The Swiss and Japanese will faceoff in one quarter-finals after a narrow 4-3 Swiss win in the preliminary round.
photo: Andrea Cardin / IIHF
It’s that time of the tournament when turns to its crack reporting team of Liz Montroy and Andrew Podnieks and asks them to take the pulse of the goings-on so far in Brampton. The preliminary round is over, and the playoffs are around the corner! And so, here is the first edition of the 2023 Women’s Worlds Ask the Experts.

Only one of the 10 coaches is female. Is that a problem, or no big deal?

LM: I have always been a proponent for more female coaches at all levels of the game, and I definitely want to see more. There have been ebbs and flows over the years in regards to the number of female coaches at Women’s Worlds, and we are still at the stage where we’re seeing “firsts”—it was only just last year that Carla MacLeod became the first ever female head coach of Czechia’s women’s national team. While not every head coach starts as an assistant or U18 coach, this is an important aspect of the coaching pipeline. There are eight female assistant coaches here in Brampton; Canada and the United States each have two, while Czechia, Finland, Hungary and Japan have one. Meanwhile, the 2023 U18 Women’s Worlds had 12 female coaches overall, and half had women as head coach.

AP: Of course, it would be nice to see more female coaches in general, but I think most teams are just trying to hire the best person to get the most out their players. The North Americans have had plenty of women’s coaches over the years, but they also have the greatest pool of talent from which to work. Carla MacLeod is the woman, with Czechia, and you could also argue it would be great for each country to have a coach native to that team. So the fact that she isn’t Czech isn’t a big deal given her amazing success so far.

There have been a number of players making their WW debuts. Who has impressed you the most?

AP: I’m interested in following the progress of Finnish goalie Sanni Ahola. She played in two U18s a number of years ago, first as a backup and then starter, and has been getting better and better at St. Cloud State University. She has played two games in Brampton against the lesser lights, a 14-1 win over France and a shutout against Hungary, but coach Juuso Toivola is wisely easing her into the senior level. So far she has responded well. Right now, she is clearly behind Anni Keisala…but for how long?

LM: I can’t not talk about Sweden’s Hilda Svensson. Ever since she scored on her first shift of the tournament, the 16-year-old has looked composed and experienced beyond her years. She earned a spot on Sweden’s top line with Hanna Olsson and Lina Ljungblom and is regularly deployed in high-stakes situations. She is second on the team in scoring with four goals and five assists (she does it all—setting up her teammates and scoring goals). It’s wild to think that this is just the start of her national-team career, and I’m looking forward to watching her in the years to come.

Japan and Czechia were playing in Group A and Finland in Group B. How did that work out?

LM: The games between Japan, Czechia, and Switzerland in Group A made for some close and exciting competition. Despite losing to the Canadians and Americans, Czechia performed well; they held the score at 2-1 for Canada until close to the end of the second period and were tied 2-2 against the U.S. at the end of the first. I think they’ve shown that they belong in Group A. Having Finland in Group B was really to the benefit of the other teams, who don’t usually get to face a top opponent like the Finns until the quarter-finals. For a team like Germany, playing the Finns (and keeping the score to 3-0) actually gave them some confidence that will be crucial for that squad moving forward.

AP: Really well. To no one’s surprise Finland won all four games, but only the first was a blowout. They had to work for the rest, notably a win over Sweden after trailing 2-0 to start the third. But Czechia has proved that their bronze last year was no fluke. They kept the scores against the North Americans respectful, and played a physical style along the way! And, they have several young players who have made an impact. Their future looks bright. Japan, too, has played with confidence, gotten some good goaltending, and don’t look out of place by any means. No, they won’t win gold or silver, but coach Yuji Iizuka’s ambitions for a bronze are not so crazy as they might have been a few years ago.

What’s your preliminary round highlight?

AP: I’m going to have to give a 1A and 1B answer because it’s just impossible not to start with the Canada-United States game. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, they outdo themselves again and again, and the wild 4-3 shootout game last Monday was another example. Okay, my 1B is the Swiss 4-3 win over Japan. Japan led 2-0 and were the better team for 40 minutes, but then Alina Muller did Alina things alongside captain Lara Stalder and they escaped with an entertaining 4-3 win.

LM: I’ll echo you in regards to the Canada versus United States game. You couldn’t have asked for a more thrilling turn of events, and the atmosphere in the CAA Centre was electric. I’m going to opt for a Group B highlight, though, as well: simply watching Germany be a completely different team than the one I watched last year in Denmark. In their opening game against Sweden, they allowed a goal against in the opening 10 seconds, then rebounded for a 6-2 upset win, and they had that very impressive—and entertaining—3-0 loss to Finland. The team just looks so confident and comfortable. 

Who is your preliminary-round MVP?

LM: I have a feeling you are going with a forward, so I’m going to choose a goalie and a defender. For goalies, I have to go with Ann-Renee Desbiens. She’s not the best statistically (that honour goes to Germany’s Sandra Abstreiter), but her 92.86 save percentage and 1.30 goals-against average is not too shabby either. She shut out Switzerland and was the winning goalie in Canada’s shootout win over the United States. For defence: Caroline Harvey. She leads defenders in scoring and has really proven herself to be one of the best players on Team USA, excelling in all situations and areas of the ice.

AP: Forward it is! Actually, I'll mention two. MVP means best of the best, the top dawg, and for me two skaters stand out—Taylor Heise and Sarah Fillier. Of course, what do they have in common? They’re heirs apparent in their programs. Few players have had an impact at the WW the way Heise has, as pure a passer as you’ll ever see. And Fillier is the opposite, a player who generates her own offence and is lethal around the goal. Hockey is fortunate enough to have these two women leading the way for the next decade or more.

Do you foresee any upsets in the quarter-finals?

AP: Canada and the U.S. will win, no doubt about those games, I think. But Finland-Czechia could be more than a little interesting. The surging and confident Czechs definitely have what it takes, and if Finland is going to win, they'll have to up their game. I can see Czechis winning, and I wouldn't even call it an upset at this point. And Switzerland-Japan is a toss. Previously, a Japan win would be considered an upset, but they led La Suisse 2-0 and 3-2 in the preliminary round. These two matches should be close and entertaining.

LM: I agree. I do love an upset, but don’t foresee Germany beating the U.S. or Sweden beating Canada. Next closest thing to an upset would be Japan making it to the semi-finals, a feat they have never accomplished before. 

Which of the relegated teams will make it back to the top first?

LM: Hungary. They have the right mix of experienced and younger players, and their top players—such as Alexandra Huszak, Fanni Gasparics and Reka Dabasi—had some stand-out moments in the preliminary round. They were a stronger team than France here in Brampton and have slightly more experience at the top division that will play into their favour. 

AP: Oooo, that’s tough, but I’ll say Hungary. Aniko Nemeth is a quality goalie and the Hungarians have a little more firepower, I think. For the elevator teams (up and down) the biggest problem is always scoring. France managed only five goals in four games while Hungary had seven. Not a huge difference, but there is definitely a bit more offensive ability with Hungary. They also beat France, 4-2, in the preliminary round.