The IIHF Women’s World Championships kick off Friday afternoon and they might be the most anticipated women’s hockey tournament in years. The hype around Team USA may be bigger than it normally is before an Olympics—certainly a lot more people will be paying attention when the puck drops at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, MI. With every U.S. game schedule for prime viewing hours and being aired on NHL Network (some on tape delay) and streaming on NHL.com, it’s never been easier for people to tune in and now the pressure is on Team USA to deliver.
After Team USA successfully staged a boycott in order to force USA Hockey to provide more compensation, better benefits and a youth development program from females, its profile has never been bigger. The agreement, reached on Tuesday, left the Americans with just two days to travel to Plymouth and practice together before the tournament begins. The players say the fight with USA Hockey bonded them even closer, but it’ll be interesting to see if that translates to chemistry on the ice.
While Canada has held a stranglehold on Olympic gold—winning the last found Games—it’s been the Americans that have dominated the World Championships of late. Team USA has won the last three WWC and seven of the last nine gold medals. Canada last took home a gold in 2012. With Pyeongchang 2018 less than a year away and the largest profile they’ve ever had, there’s an expectation on Team USA to deliver another winning performance.
USA and Canada have played in every WWC gold-medal game and it’s expected those two will be duking it out once again. But there are six other teams also competing and none of them came to Plymouth looking to take home bronze. Russia, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Czech Republic and Germany all are looking to de-throne the queens. They’ll also be fighting for world seeding and to not be relegated. Beyond USA’s story of triumph, there’s plenty to watch for at this tournament.
The teams are separated into two groups, A and B. Group A is the top four teams from the previous year’s championship. After opening round play, the top two teams get an automatic bye into the semi-finals. The bottom two teams will face the top two finishers from Group B in quarterfinal matches. The bottom two teams in Group B will play a best-of-three series, with the losing team being relegated. Germany is in this year’s tournament after earning promotion by winning the Division I Group A World Championships.
Between USA’s lack of pre-tournament camp and how the team looked when the two faced off in a December series featuring a game in Plymouth and one in Sarnia, Ontario, the Canadians have to be looked on as favorites for the gold medal. They bring in an experienced squad with 16 players from last year’s tournament and 13 women who won gold in Sochi.
That leaves seven new players on the roster: forwards Haley Irwin, Sarah Potomak, and Laura Stacey, defensemen Erin Ambrose and Renata Fast, and goalies Shannon Szabados and Geneviève Lacasse.
Obviously Szabados is no stranger to the senior national team, but she has not competed with it in a major tournament since Sochi. She did play the majority of both games in that December series, giving up five goals in 111 minutes of game play. She is joined by Lacasse, who earned a spot on the roster with stellar play in the CWHL, and Emerance Maschmeyer, who played spectacularly for them in the 2016 WWC and looked to be emerging as their new star in net. There hasn’t been any indication from Hockey Canada as to which goalie, if any, will be named the starter.
Marie-Philip Poulin has been the cause of many broken American hearts, as she’s scored the game-winning goal at each of the last two Olympics. She’s an elite player with incredible hands, a killer shot and the kind of vision on the ice that most people dream of. Rebecca Johnston was arguably the star of the December series for Canada. She seemed to have the American’s number and found herself with the puck in front of the net more times than USA would like to remember.
The youngsters on offense are Potomak and Emily Clark. Both played in the NCAA Frozen Four and feature on high-powered top lines for their college programs. Each seems to be elevated by the players around them, so Canada has to hope they find similar chemistry on their respective lines with the national team. Potomak has shown incredible growth from her freshman to sophomore seasons at Minnesota and really developed a strong defensive end to her game. She also has the best shot on a very potent Gopher team. Clark, a junior at Wisconsin, seems to have a great sense of where he teammates are on the ice and is great at dishing them the puck as well as having a wicked wrister.
On defense, Meaghan Mikkelson brings a veteran presence and size to lead a fairly young blue line corps. She’s the oldest player on the roster and brings a ton of experience, both with Hockey Canada and in the CWHL. Fast and Ambrose were teammates that won an NCAA championship at Clarkson in 2014 and play together at Toronto. They knew each other impeccably, but it’ll be interesting to see if they are trusted alone together in their first venture out with the national team.
Halli Krzyzaniak is the unsung hero of the blue line. She just finished her senior season and the University of North Dakota, which announced on Wednesday that it's cutting their women’s program. She’s a gritty defender, great along the boards and always a threat to make a dash toward the goal.
In the December series, the Americans played their first series with Robb Stauber at the helm after coach Ken Klee was removed. At the time, it was not a permanent appointment, but he was since named the head coach after years as an assistant to the women’s program.
It’s much too small of sample size to indict Stauber, but the US did not play their best hockey in that series. That showing combined with their lack of practice certainly leaves a large question mark for the team.
The Americans have some of the best passing in the world. They have been a finesse team that excels in transition and uses the size of Hilary Knight combined with the speed of Kendall Coyne for a lethal top line. Unfortunately, none of that was on display in December. They struggled with tape-to-tape passes and never really found a clean and consistent zone exit or entry. Whether it can be attributed to a change in coaching style or philosophy remains to be seen, but USA has to be better with the puck if its going to have a chance in this tournament.
Kelly Pannek is on the same line as Canada’s Sarah Potomak at the University of Minnesota. The junior is one of the most cerebral players on the ice and has not only impeccable vision and ability to anticipate where her teammates are, but she pairs it with above average puck-handling. She’s deceptive, and while you might not ever be blown away by her, but you’ll find yourself realizing she was involved in a myriad of dangerous plays.
Amanda Kessel missed the past three world championships due to injury, so fans are eager to see how she slots back into the roster. She has the potential to be a game-changer for USA, but she was held mostly in check against Canada in December. She’s most potent when she’s connecting with teammates, so the Americans have to hope the chemistry is there.
The defense is a strong batch of returners, including Megan Bozek, Lee Stecklein and Emily Pfalzer. Megan Keller has played with the team in the past and is was a top-ten Patty Kazmaier finalist as a junior at Boston College this past season. She’s joined by teammate Flanagan, who had a stellar second-half of the season and seems to be finding her confidence.
In net, they will be looking to now-veteran Alex Rigsby. Somewhat bafflingly left out of pre-Sochi camp, she’s had a bit of a chip on her shoulder since. She’s been the top goalie since Jessie Vetter retired and she'll be joined by Nicole Hensley and Rooney, who’s fresh off an eye-opening sophomore season at Minnesota-Duluth. She was crucial to their postseason run, stopping more than 100 shots in her conference tournament games against Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The Russians won the bronze medal in 2016 by beating Finland in a shootout after a scoreless tie. With the return of Noora Räty in net for the Finns, the likelihood of a similar outcome this year has been significantly lessened.
Russia and Finland have met up in each of the past three bronze medal games, so they get the benefit of the doubt to reach the medal round again until other teams have to prove they can unseat them.
It seems Russia has begun to give their women’s program the resources and attention they deserve and are working on making them into a regular contender. Despite the bronze medal, which was certainly a “win” for them, they spent the last year retooling the program. They brought in a new coach and shuffled the roster. Alexei Chistyakov is at the helm now and unsurprisingly, many of the players he coaches at Tornado Moscow Region have found themselves on the national team.
One interesting roster addition is Nadezhda Alexandrova. She was the netminder for Russia in 2013, winning a bronze medal, but took time off to have a baby. She’s Chistyakov’s goalie in the WHL and makes a return to the national team. She’s paired with two women who were on the team in 2016, so we should learn how heavily Chistyakov will lean on his club team players based on how the goalies line up.
They will reportedly be without Olga Sosina & Anna Shokhina in their opening round meeting with Finland after they received game misconducts in a tune-up match against Switzerland on Tuesday.
After Sochi, goalkeeper Räty used social media to announce her retirement. She later rescinded the post, saying she was trying to comment on the state of professional women’s hockey. Since then, she’s played in men’s leagues in Finland and a feud with the national team coach kept her from the roster for more than a year. She returned to the team for the 2016 Nations Cup and in the 14 games with Finland since has a 1.80 goals-against average.
Her presence is huge for the Finns, not only in the net but for the confidence she gives the rest of her players in moving forward. Finland has not been particularly offensive-minded, but knowing they have Räty behind them should give them more flexibility.
They have several current and former NCAA players on the roster, many of whom played at North Dakota. Emma Nuutinen and Anna Kilponen played for the Fighting Hawks this past season while Michelle Karvinen and Susanna Tapani are alumnae. Saana Valkama skates at Vermont and Mira Jaluso played with Räty at Minnesota.
The Swiss won bronze in Sochi and are the team most likely to upset Russia or Finland for a spot in the semis. Much like Finland, their fortunes are greatly improved by their world-class goalie. Florence Schelling was possibly the best netminder in Sochi and was crucial in their ability to medal.
Much of Switzerland’s roster plays in a women’s league at home or elsewhere in Europe. Schelling has 10 games in net with Linköping, where she’s allowing just over a goal per game. Four of their six defenders are teammates on ZSC Lions.
It may get repetitive if you read more than one preview, but the player to watch on the Swiss team is Lara Stalder. It’s not that there’s no one else to watch, it’s just that Stalder is so, so good. The forward was a Patty Kazmaier top-three finalist, had 56 points in 35 games for Minnesota-Duluth and had eight goals and 12 points for Switzerland in three games during Olympic qualifying at the beginning of the year.
She’s a converted defenseman and she actually fell back onto the blue line in the playoffs for Duluth when a double-overtime game left their team gassed. She scored the game-winner over Minnesota by batting a puck out of the air at the back post while technically playing defense at the time.
That story is somewhat ridiculous, but honestly that’s what Stalder’s game is like. She’s everywhere on the ice without seeming scattered. She’s quick and crisp. She’s strong on her skates and has a wicked shot. You’ll know when she’s on the ice for the Swiss.
The Czechs represent a bit of a new wave in women’s hockey. They’ve never medaled and their highest finish was sixth in 2016. But they’ve not been relegated and they continue to show promise at the youth level. They bring a young roster full of potential talent. They’re unlikely to do anything too ground-breaking this year, but they’re a team on the rise and one worth keeping your eye on.
Where they’re most dangerous is in the fact that they have nothing to lose. A growing, upstart program, they have no pressure and no expectations. They’re here to play the best, gain experience and grow. But a strong game from their goalie could be just the bump they need to grab an upset. The confidence that would give the players and the program would be difficult to deny.
One of the reasons the program has shown such promise is many of their players have made their way to the NCAA—at this point, the biggest and best development program for all talent, not just the U.S. and Canada.
They’re led by Northeastern’s Denisa Křížová, Clarkson’s Michaela Pejzlová and Maine’s Tereza Vanišová. Křížová stepped into Coyne’s top forward spot and led the Huskies in scoring this past season. Pejzlová had an impact in her first year and won a national championship with the Golden Knights and Vanišová was named her league’s Rookie of the Year despite the fact that Maine finished last. Not only are they playing in the NCAA, they’re flourishing.
In addition to those three, Samantha Kolowratova plays at Vermont, Aneta Lédlová is at Robert Morris, Kateřina Mrázová is at Minnesota-Duluth and Vendula Pribylova joins Vanišová at Maine.
For all the great hockey history in Sweden, the women’s program remains stagnant. It has just two bronze medals at the World Championships and hsan't played in the third place game since 2009. Unfortunately for the players, their federation doesn’t seem much interested in changing things. The coach and the roster remain relatively the same, though a new assistant coach may bring in some of the young blood they need to shake things up.
Not only have the Swedes struggled to ever get close to the U.S. and Canada, but they’ve since been passed by the Russians, Finns and Swiss—and it’s not really even close. It can only be hoped that the Swedish women may be inspired by what transpired with the Americans and can find a way to demand better from their governing body.
While other countries increasingly look to the NCAA—and the CIS in Canada—to help develop players, just two Swedes are currently in the NCAA, Michelle Löwenhielm and Maria Lindh, both at Minnesota-Duluth. There may be a chicken or the egg conversation to be had—the talent has to be good enough to be recruited in the first place—but it’s an obvious contrast between the Swedish roster and those from the rest of Europe.
The Swedes rely heavily on defense and hope to steal a goal and hold on. Of course, their coach doesn’t see it that way and has blamed a lack of offense on injuries. The players themselves are definitely talented enough to do well at this tournament, but they aren’t in a situation conducive to their success.
The Germans are the team most likely to be relegated at the end of the tournament and will be playing to avoid that more than anything. It’s been a disappointing few months for them, after the high of being promoted. They failed to qualify for Pyeongchang and come to Plymouth feeling a little like there’s not much to play for.
They’ve placed as high as fifth in this tournament, the last time coming in 2015. They’ll need to find a way to put a positive spin on the tourney and look to be playing for more than staying up. They’ve got a talented and veteran roster led by Tanja Eisenschmid on the blue line. She’s a huge bonus to them in back, but she’s also an offensive threat.
The Germans are bringing 10 forwards and 10 defensemen. That split probably tells you all you need to know about the strategy they plan to employ in this tournament. While they’re going to be stacked in back, I imagine the forwards are really going to have their fitness tested.