Four to watch
by Andrew Podnieks|12 APR 2024
Nelli Laitinen is only 21 but already an important part of Finland's present and future.
photo: Matt Zambonin/IIHF
As we head to the final weekend of play in Utica, we can’t be terribly surprised that the four teams left standing are United States, Canada, Czechia, and Finland. And, yes, we know Hilary Knight can score, Marie-Philip Poulin is “captain clutch,” Klara Peslarova among the best goalies in the world, and Jenni Hiirikoski the straw that stirs Finland’s drink.

But what about the others? No one player can win a game, so let’s look at a few players, maybe flying a bit under the radar, who could be key to their team’s fortunes this weekend with medals on the line.

Aerin Frankel (USA)
Only 24 years old, the Frankel-Ann-Renee Desbiens rivalry-within-the-rivalry is only just getting started. In the preliminary round last year, Frankel lost the duel in a shootout but was sensational, and in the gold-medal game she was better when she had to be and won. This year, she shut out Desbiens and the Canadians, 1-0, in overtime, and in four games in Utica she has three blank sheets. While the scorers are firing on all cylinders so far, it’s a big save at the right time that will be key to the Americans repeating as champions. And if all goes to form, it will be Frankel and Desbiens in the thick of the battle to decide gold.

Emma Maltais (CAN)
Canada has arrived at the final four as a team. No one player that we would expect to dominate has done so. Poulin has been fighting an injury and has only two assists. Natalie Spooner, the PWHL’s leading scorer, has but one goal in five games. Sarah Fillier’s only goal was an empty netter. Canada’s best forward has almost certainly been Emma Maltais. The 24-year-old is playing in her fifth major women’s tournament and is blossoming at the right time. She is finding her touch around the net and is proving to be dangerous with and without the puck in the offensive end. Not big but skilled, she just appears at the right time, finds space where there isn't any, and creates something out of nothing. Not big, no. But quick, very quick.

Natalie Mlynkova (CZE)
Only 22 years old, Mlynkova has taken charge of the Czechs at a time when Peslarova is dominating in goal. Mlynkova has scored four of the team’s eleven goals, and now has 15 goals in 30 career IIHF Women’s Worlds games, an impressive total on a team that has only ascended to the top echelon the last couple of years. Her six total points is tied for fifth in tournament scoring, and any return to the podium on the weekend is likely only if Mlynkova can keep on playing with Mrazova-like skill.

Nelli Laitinen (FIN)
For so many years the country Finland has conjured up visions of Hiirikoski, Susanna Tapani, Michelle Karvinen, Petra Nieminen. But Laitinen is starting to reach her prime. Only 21 years old, it feels like she has been around a long time as well. She played in four WW18 tournaments and is now in her fifth WW. She also helped Finland win bronze at the Beijing Olympics. Laitinen had three goals and ten points last year when the team played in Group B, but this year she has four points in five games playing in Group A and is playing with an effectiveness that belies her youth. The big names are still the big names, but if a secondary player is going to make a difference for Suomi, look no further than number 9.