Finland trying to loosen U.S.-Canada hold on women's hockey
PLYMOUTH, Mich. (AP) Whenever there is a major women's hockey tournament - for an Olympic or world title - it feels like European teams are playing for third place.
Finland is out to change that.
The Finns pulled off a head-turning upset at the world championships last weekend, beating Canada in group play. On Thursday, they'll try to repeat that feat in the semifinals, with a spot in the championship game at stake. Beating the Canadians a second time will be a tall order, but a victory by Finland would be quite an accomplishment in a sport dominated by Canada and the United States.
''We have been in the bronze-medal game so many times. It's not enough anymore,'' Finland forward Susanna Tapani said. ''We want to be in the final and have the experience of that.''
The U.S.-Canada duopoly hasn't shown many signs of cracking over the years. Those countries have taken the top two spots - the order varies - in every world championship since the event began in 1990. The Olympics have been a similar story, with the exception of one silver medal by Sweden in 2006.
At the 2010 Olympics, the Americans and Canadians outscored their opponents 86-4 before finally playing each other for the gold medal.
So when Finland beat Canada 4-3 on Saturday, it was a significant result, even though there was nothing really at stake besides seeding. Canada ended up with a bye into the semifinals anyway, but Finland's a href(equals)'https://apnews.com/f8857314a2f741f4bd68e8bced0c347d/Finland,-Germany-advance-to-semifinals-at-women's-worlds'4-0 win/a over Sweden in the quarterfinals set up the rematch.
''I enjoy playing the big games, so hopefully I can give my team a chance to win,'' Finland goalie Noora Raty said.
Raty has been a standout in this tournament, making 35 saves against Canada and then 35 more in a 5-3 loss to the U.S. After shutting out Sweden, she'll be a major key for the Finns as they try to upset the Canadians again. The Americans play Germany on Thursday night in the other semifinal.
Raty is no stranger to big games, having played at the University of Minnesota. In 2012-13, her final season for the Golden Gophers, she went 38-0-0 with 17 shutouts, leading Minnesota to its second straight national title.
''She's awesome,'' Finland captain Jenni Hiirikoski said. ''She's our superstar.''
Finland was outshot 38-26 by Canada last weekend and 40-24 by the U.S. on Monday. Those margins make it tough to win, but a team can overcome them if it gets great goaltending.
Although the U.S. and Canada have been a cut above everyone else, Finland has often been the best of the remaining teams. The Finns have won 11 bronze medals at the world championships, and no other country has more than three.
Raty can keep the Finns in games, and they've also shown some scoring punch. They never trailed in the win over Canada, and they took an early lead against the Americans. Finland was tied with the U.S. in the third period before eventually losing.
''It's very important to score the first goal,'' Tapani said. ''We always are good in our zone. Now we can score.''
It will take another strong performance to make it past Canada, but Finland has already caught the attention of the world's top two teams.
''The Finns are a fantastic team. They really are,'' U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said. ''They commit to both sides of the puck. They've got a fantastic goaltender. I really think they've grown a lot in the last couple years. They gave us a great battle, so super-impressive.''
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister