Optics, optics, optics.
In women’s hockey, it all depends on how you look at it.
Heading into Monday’s matches – U.S.A. vs Switzerland in the afternoon, Canada vs Finland in the evening – you could pick your conclusions following the two weekend victories by the only two countries that, for the moment, matter.
In Saturday’s 3-1 victory by the Americans over Finland, Team U.S.A. outshot the Finns 43-15 and completely dominated play over the team most often mentioned as a potential challenger to the two superpowers. The Americans were fast, very fast. The Finns, with rare exception, were hardly a factor, several of their meagrely 15 shots of curling weight rather than hockey snap.
The star of the lopsided game – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – was the losing goaltender, in this case the remarkable Noora Raty who will leave these Olympics and take up netminding for a high-level men’s team in Finland.
In the game that followed, the Canadians defeated Switzerland 5-0 and outshot the Swiss women 69-14, though it is certain a forensic audit of the game would show that several of Switzerland’s 14 shots never came close to the Canadian net. The Canadians were strong, very strong.
The star of this lopsided game – no fair guessing – was Swiss goaltender Florence Schelling, who works out with a top-level amateur men’s team in Switzerland and made multiple saves that brought gasps and cheers from the 4,386 fans, many of them Canadian, who came to watch.
“We only lost 5-0,” said a happy Schelling when the shelling was over.
And this, then, is how you put a positive spin on such domination. Four years ago in Vancouver, Canada defeated Switzerland 10-1. This, then, is considered progress in the hyper-analyzed world of women’s hockey.
Canadians are most familiar with the debate, as it threatens their beloved women’s hockey team and the gold medal that has been claimed now three Olympics in a row by the women. Then International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge warned that “We cannot continue without improvement” – meaning that women’s hockey would be booted from the Olympics if other countries failed to compete fairly with the Canadians and Americans.
The issue arose out of that 10-1 game and worse – Canada defeated Slovakia 18-0 in the same tournament, whipped host Italy 16-0 in Turin four years earlier.
Supporters argued, fairly, that men’s Olympic hockey took decades to become a sport where gold wasn’t a given. In the 1949 World Championships, Canada defeated Denmark 47-0. It took 54 years, but in 2003 Denmark tied Canada 2-2 in the same tournament.
But that was then and this is now: impatience rules.
What encouraged Florence Schelling was that neither team could score in the third period. Four years ago in Vancouver, the Canadians scored as many goals in the final frame as they scored in three periods this time.
“I see an improvement, for sure,” said Schelling. “I don’t think we had that many shots on them ever. It was good for us. The last seven or so minutes we were pressuring them. They had a hard time breaking out.
“It showed us that we actually had improved and we can play a lot longer, for 60 minutes. I think we can. Playing the third period usually we break down because we’re tired, we can’t keep up with them, but today it wasn’t the case. We pushed even harder at the end.”
In the U.S.A.-Finland game, the third period was also embraced by the loser. The Finns scored; the Americans could not.
“We won that,” said Finnish coach Mika Pieniniemi, “and that’s a good thing I think.”
“We maybe have learned to break the feeling of giving up,” said Team Finland forward Karoliina Rantamaki.
It is an intriguing point, as one could understand a weak team simply laying down tools when faced with the Americans or Canadians, who are, in fact, very different hockey teams despite their dual standing as the world’s best.
The Americans have exceptional speed. The line of Brianna Decker, Kendall Coyne and Amanda Kessel, younger sister of Team U.S.A.’s and Toronto Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel, is easily the fastest-skating line in women’s hockey.
The Canadians have veteran experience – despite eight Olympic rookies – and strength, very strong on the puck, very determined as defenders.
What may have changed most in recent years of women’s hockey is shot-taking. The weakness of shots was apparent on both the Finnish and, in particular, the Swiss teams.
However, a mere 53 seconds into the U.S.A. Finnish game 24-year-old Hilary Knight ripped a wrist shot past Raty that had male jaws hitting the floor in Shayba Arena.
“She’s likely got the best shot in women’s hockey,” said Raty. “I’ve been practicing with the men the whole year and as hard as they shoot there are shots like Hilary Knight.
“I mean we’re more physically fit than we used to be, so I think that’s the biggest thing. We have more opportunity to play pros, whereas it used to be just amateurs.”
Knight maintains that competition is, in fact, changing in women’s hockey, just as Jacques Rogge said it must. She points out that last fall it was Finland that knocked her team out of the Four Nations tournament.
“There’s definitely more than two horses in the race,” she said.
American coach Katey Stone feels even stronger about matters. “There are 21 players and four coaches in that locker room who don’t believe it’s a two-team tournament,” she told reporters Saturday.
“Thank you,” said Finnish coach Pieniniemi.
“We feel strongly that any team can win,” added Stone.
That, of course, is a stretch – but there is a growing sense that matters are at least improving among the also-rans.
“Monday against Canada we have opportunities,” said Finnish forward Rantamaki.
And one of them is to show Jacques Rogge and his fellow doubters that the optics are improving.