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National Women’s Teams Hit the Ice

April 3, 2013

ImageGenAfter a long Easter weekend and with several players jumping in straight from the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) Clarkson Cup Championship tournament, the 2013 World Women’s Hockey Championship (WWHC) opened with a bang in its inaugural city of Ottawa. All 8 teams played on Day 1, with Germany taking on Russia (Group B), followed by Switzerland versus Finland (Group A);  the rookie Czech Republic against Sweden (Group B) and closing with perennial rivals Canada and the USA (Group A).

The Russians are backed by former Ottawa Senator and Russian National Team member, general manager, Alexei Yashin.  Playing in the opening game of the tournament, Team Russia blanked Team Germany on the strength of veteran forward Yekaterian Smolentseva’s two-point effort (1G,1A). Germany managed but 14 shots on goal in the effort.

Game 2 saw 2012’s Cinderella sweetheart, the Swiss, repeat their medal match against the 2011 bronze medal Finns.  In consecutive years, each team was backstopped to their tournament wins by the tournament’s all star goaltender. Today, Florence Schelling and Noora Raty faced off again, and the result was a not unexpected low-scoring battle.  The Swiss opened the scoring in a solid first period, but were shut out the remainder of the game. The Finns came on strong in the second period, allowing only one shot on goal while firing 15 towards and scored two goals to take the lead and the win. As in their last meeting, Schelling was key despite the loss, facing 44 shots compared to Raty’s 17.

The Czech Republic made their debut at the WWHC against frequent medal contender Sweden in the first of the late games.  Although they faced an experienced team, the rookie Czechs showed no jitters in jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first period. Throughout the game, they didn’t appear to be fazed by their opponents even when the Swedes tied the game   with two goals in a couple of minutes mid-way through the second. The Czechs would score their third goal just before the end of the second period and held Sweden to just 6 shots in the third to pick up their first win in their first game at the top level world championships.

The final game of the night was a rematch between the greatest rivals in women’s hockey.  But despite home ice advantage and spiffy black and gold uniforms in support of the LiveStrong movement for cancer survivors, Canuck killers Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux combined to open the scoring for Team USA on the powerplay.  Nerves ensued.

Penalty number two and the Americans were up 2-0 on a sharp goal by Brianna Decker. While Team Canada fumbled their passes and stabbed at pucks, the vaunted US forecheck and speed appeared to be more than they could handle. Shades of 2012, where Canada suffered their worst defeat ever, at the hands of many of these same opponents. And not only were they down by 2, they lost captain Hayley Wickenheiser to injury late in the period.

The second period provided Team Canada with multiple squandered powerplay opportunities.  A typically fierce and sometimes chippy game saw the US take 4 straight penalties. But too much perimeter play, slow puck movement and lack of intensity in addition to some stellar goaltending by Jessie Vetter and astute blocks by the defence in front of her led to an 0/6 powerplay record.  With each penalty kill, the US seemed to solidify their play.

As cliche as it gets, it was gut check time. In front of a sea of now quiet Canadian fans, the team needed a spark. Anything to get them back in the game and get the fans back behind them.  It took until half-way through the third period for that spark to come. The Canadians had been pressing, but Vetter was standing tall and made save after save. It took a giveaway in the defensive zone with the puck thrown at the net and almost all the players within 3 feet of the crease for them to score.

Jessie Vetter made the first save but was down and out with both her own and Team Canada’s players crashing in and around her crease.  The puck finally squirted free right out in front of the net and Rebecca Johnston would pop it in the gaping cage to the literal roar of the crowd. From then on, it was all Team Canada.  Where once pucks had bounced over sticks, passes had been intercepted and puck battles in the corners and along the boards lost – now there were crisp passes, quick outlets and odd-man advantages in Canada’s favour.

Pressure was mounting and with just under two minutes left in the third, the Americans couldn’t get out of their own zone.  Vetter made a terrific stop on a shot by Sarah Vaillancourt, but a pinching Catherine Ward chipped the puck into the net and the game was tied.  With all the momentum on their side, Canada pulled out all the stops in an attempt to win the game in regulation time, but it was not to be and they headed to overtime.

In a turn-around from the third period, the US provided all the shots and all the pressure during the extra period. They hemmed the Canadians in their zone and peppered Shannon Szabados with wraparounds and shots from the slot to no avail. On to the shootout.

The shootout is my least favourite manner of determining the winner of a game. Partly because it is a skills showcase that eliminates the team factor from the win, but mostly because, in the case of games which I am highly invested in – I end up very close to having a heart attack. This was such a game. There is no game, preliminary or medal round, that raises the blood more than a Canada vs US hockey game. It shouldn’t be decided by a shootout. But it was. Thems the rules.

The US shot first and sent out all-star Hilary Knight. Goal. No deke, no nothing but speed and a really quick shot. 0-1 US.

Veteran Jayna Hefford started for Canada. Save Vetter. Tried five-hole but no dice. Still 0-1 US.

Next up, Monique Lamoureux. Save Szabados. Forehand deke, but Szabados followed her all the way. 0-1 US.

Meghan Agosta-Marciano to tie and keep Canada in the hunt – Goal!  In with speed and a forehand roof job. 1-1.

Brianna Decker for the lead. Save Szabados. Tried a forehand to backhand roof – miss. 1-1.

Sarah Vaillancourt with a chance to win it as the last shooter of the first round. Save Vetter. Tried a deke for five-hole, but lost the puck.

New round of shooters and teams in reverse order – can use same shooters again, per international rules.

Jennifer Wakefield for Canada.  Goal! Similar to Agosta, Wakefield roofed it after a quick fake to hold the goalie. 2-1 CDA.

US sends out Hilary Knight again. She must score to keep the US in. Save Szabados! Similar play, but Shannon held her ground. Canada completes the comeback in the skills competition! I can breathe again. Even writing this hours later, my heart was racing as I watched the replay. While exciting – I really hope the next games can be won in regulation. If only for my own health.

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