Just the slightest variation to the world order in women's hockey may be in the offing during the 2014 Winter Olympics, thanks in part to the development of Noora Raty.
Raty is to the Finnish women's program what goaltenders Miikka Kiprusoff, Pekka Rinne and Tuukka Rask have been to the men's program – a difference maker.
With Raty leading the way, the Finns gave the Canadian women all they could handle for two-plus periods Monday. It was scoreless for 50 minutes 33 seconds before Meghan Agosta-Marciano broke through on a power play, gathering in her own rebound and rifling a shot past the Finnish sensation.
That cracked the armour a little and, less than two minutes later, veteran Jayna Hefford made a neat inside-outside move on Finnish defenceman Saija Tarkki and rifled a wrister off the goalpost and in.
It ended 3-0 for Canada after Rebecca Johnston scored an insurance goal.
The win sets up a game against the United States on Wednesday for first place in their pool – which matters because it could mean avoiding the dangerous Finns in semi-final action later on.
Canada produced a lot of shots Monday – holding a 26-11 edge through 40 minutes – but didn't get enough quality scoring chances to make Raty really sweat until the third period.
"I don't think anybody was nervous," Agosta-Marciano said. "We knew what we were doing. [Raty] played unbelievably. There are going to be games like that, but you want games like that because it's going to show team character – and it did. We just kept coming."
What really stood out was the pace of the play: It was a track meet at times, with the Finns able to keep up with the Canadians far better than they have in years – something Raty ascribed to new improved levels of fitness.
"We played really well for 50 minutes, but if you want to beat USA or Canada, you have to play the full 60 minutes and not make any big mistakes," the 24-year-old goalie said. "We know the longer we can keep the score 0-0, the better chance we're going to have.
"I've probably never seen them celebrate a goal against us like they celebrated their first goal, so that probably showed that maybe they were getting a little frustrated. But the better team definitely won today."
Raty helped the Finns record a major upset last fall, at the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y., by making 58 saves in a 3-1 victory over the heavily favoured Americans. Raty and U.S. star Amanda Kessel were teammates during the University of Minnesota's undefeated 2012-13 season (a perfect 41-0) to win a second consecutive U.S. college championship.
"I know how good she is from playing with her," Kessel said a few days ago. "She's never lucky. You have to get a lot of shots on her and try to get rebounds."
Ultimately, if women's hockey continues to be a two-horse race, it could well get itself kicked out of the Olympics. If countries such as Finland close the gap, it helps everyone, according to Agosta-Marciano.
"They've improved tremendously as a team, but that's what we want," the Canadian said. "It's just showing that women's hockey is getting more competitive. You want to play against the best to be the best.
"They're a great team. There's no doubt in my mind they're going to continue doing great things."
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