And in Czechia, preparing for its first ever gold medal game in this tournament, the excitement has reached unprecedented proportions. The national team’s run to the final prompted a growing demand for the games to be televised. On Sunday, for the first time, CT Sport will show live international Women’s U18 hockey on its TV channel.
Gold medal game: USA vs CzechiaThe Czechs have already produced surely the biggest shock in Women’s U18 history. Can they top that and become the nation that breaks North America’s historic stranglehold on gold?
Having got this far and secured her country's first medal in a decade, captain and leading scorer Adela Sapovalivova is desperate to finish the job. “We want to win a gold like we won the semi-final,” she said. “I think that we can continue and we'll give our energy to the game tomorrow. Hopefully we will win. We will see.”
On paper, it feels like a no-contest. However, you only have to go back to 4 January to find a Czech win against the Americans. True, that was a warm-up game against a U.S. team still adapting after the long trip to Switzerland. And, true, it was a shoot-out success. Nonetheless, it was a first ever victory against North American opposition for a Czech women’s team.
Not surprisingly, the top line was crucial. Adela Sapovalivova had a goal, an assist, and the winning penalty shot. Tereza Plosova and Anezka Cabelova were also among the points. And goaltender Aneta Senkova pulled off some crucial saves in a game that ebbed and flowed throughout. Barely noticed outside of Czech hockey circles at the time, that game set a template for Czech success in Zug.
Now, although the USA is a red-hot favourite for this game, there’s an element of caution in the thoughts of players and coaching staff.
Head coach Liz Keady Norton is taking nothing for granted. “They have an excellent coach,” she said. “I think they have some real talent and they can score some goals. And they have an outstanding goaltender. We're going have to stick to the things that we can control, outwork them and play as thoroughly as possible.”
Forward Josie St Martin, who scored twice in that warm-up game in Kloten, is also well aware that the USA can take nothing for granted.
“We saw what happened earlier with the Czechs and Canada. But we're just going to bring our best and we're going to be dialled in tomorrow.”
Bronze-medal game: Canada vs FinlandThis is unfamiliar territory for Canada. Back-to-back champions prior to this season, the class of 2024 also dominated its most recent series against the USA. Few saw much likelihood of a semi-final loss, especially against a team that the Canadians thumped 8-1 in group stage play.
All week, commentators were coming up with new superlatives to describe the quality of the likes of Chloe Primerano and Caitlin Kraemer. There’s no doubting the quality available to Canada - and Finland saw it up close and personal during a 10-0 demolition job in the preliminary round - but Kraemer and strike partner Abby Stonehouse currently trail Emma Ekoluoma in the tournament scoring race.
Now the task is to rebuild a winning mentality after the shock of defeat. And to rebuild it in the space of 24 hours before facing a Finland team that knows all about bronze medal games.
It’s a fourth successive third-place playoff for the Finns, with two wins and two losses (plus a gap year when the competition could not be staged during the pandemic). This is a team that has the ability to process a painful loss and move on embedded in its DNA.
And it has the players to pose questions. Ekoluoma is the stand-out, but Tuuli Tallinen is a proven leader and goalie Kerttu Kuja-Halkola provides the kind of foundation stone vital for any hope of pulling off an upset.
There are also memories of recent, landmark success against the Canadians. In 2022, Finland rode 40 saves from Emilia Kyrkko to claim a sensational 2-0 group stage win over Canada in Madison. It was the first time any European nation defeated a North American women’s U18 team on the western side of the Atlantic, and Finland’s first victory over Canada in this tournament. The next step is to repeat that success in a knock-out situation. Czechia showed the way on Saturday: can Finland follow?