Ronja Savolainen scored the go-ahead goal with 1:41 left in the game and Finland killed a penalty to run out time for the Finns’ first-ever World Championships win over Canada on Saturday.
It was a second straight flat start to a game for the Canadians and forward Rebecca Johnston said she didn’t have a reason why.
The Finns scored first and though the Canadians responded quickly, it set up a game where Finland would take a lead and Canada was playing catch up.
“I think we need to get that first goal and put them back on their heels and we missed that part. We came back three times, which showed a little bit of resilience, but it just wasn’t enough.
We need to really play for 60 minutes and not 40 or 20,” she said. “When they get that first goal and we keep giving them that lead, we give them confidence. We need to be able to stick it to them and get that first goal and get shots on net and really swarm them so that we get that confidence and then go from there. Giving them that confidence is not part of the game plan, it’s not something we want to do.”
Canadian coach Laura Schuler gave credit to both the Finnish defense and the play of Finland goalie Noora Räty. She was adamant there weren’t problems to fix and was ready to focus on her team’s next game, a tilt with Russia on Monday (3:30 pm.m ET) to close out Group play.
Despite making program history, the Finnish players were subdued in their post-game celebration. Both Räty and Susanna Tapani responded to questions about staid response with “We’re from Finland!” Or, as Räty put it, “We’re never too low or never too high.”
Beyond the cultural reasons, the win wasn’t a celebration because it’s no longer a surprise. Not only has the program grown enough to beat Canada, but the players have grown so much that they believe they can—and should—win.
“We really didn’t have a system,” said Räty. “Our new coach has brought in a system that gives us a chance to win and every player is buying in too. That’s what we needed, we believe that we have a system that’s going to work.”
Though Canadian fans in the stadium and on social media seemed shocked by the loss and concerned about what it might mean about the state of the women’s team, the win says much more about the growth of Finland than it does about any Canadian backslide.
Finland coach Pasi Mustonen has been hugely influential in the changes and improvements for Team Finland. In his third season with the team, he’s revamped nearly everything. From weight training, conditioning and fitness to meal programs and on-ice systems, Mustonen has overhauled the team. In addition, he’s publicly called out their federation and the Finnish media for not giving enough support to the women’s program.
If anyone knows how much the program has evolved it’s 43-year-old center Riikka Välilä and she said that one of the biggest chances was the focus on off-ice training.
“We have to be faster, stronger, more well-conditioned and then we can play the game we want to play. We are more athletic and that makes it easier on us. Then it goes to tactical,” she said. “We have four lines. Before we had one or two lines and those players were so tired.”
Now the changes are paying off and Mustonen wasn’t surprised. He said he wasn’t personally excited about the win, but he knows how important overcoming the mental blocks and seemingly larger-than-life obstacles are for the players’ psyche.
“Every day that goes by we go stronger and stronger mentally and we really believe we can win,” he said. That’s more important than the points. It’s the mental part of the game. We can beat all the teams in the world if we are playing our game. You have to get over that threshold mentally.”
Välilä is Finnish for 'Warrior'
Välilä first played with the Finnish national team in 1989. She’s in the IIHF Hall of Fame and she had retired for 10 years before returning to the ice in 2012. Now at 43, the center is not just on the roster, but a contributing member of the squad. She scored Finland’s goal on Friday and led the tournament in faceoff percentage after the first day.
Välilä said that the thing that ultimately brought her back is that she love ice hockey. She spent a season working as a team manager for the national team and it put her close to the game, but not close enough. She found herself pondering a return.
“I started to think that maybe I could do a comeback, but I think it was only me who thought that, who thought I was serious,” she said, drawing out the maybe.
So she practiced and felt good and hasn’t looked back. She won’t commit to saying she’ll play in Pyeongchang or anything much beyond the present. But as long as she’s contributing and lovnig the game—and her life—she’s going to keep playing.
“I’m 43 years old. I have to take it one season at a time,” she said. “I feel like I have my place on the team—what I’m doing on the ice, not just personality. I wouldn’t like to be here, if not.”
Canada can play a very system based-style that Räty said makes them a better matchup for Finland. But the system might be a bit too rigid to be successful in a game like this.
Johnston said the Canadians need to be better at finding gritty goals, crashing the net and looking for tip ins. Pretty goals are nice, but ugly goals count all the same.
Germany 2, Czech Republic 1
Thus far, the Germans are the surprise of the tournament. They seem intent on putting the disappointment of the Olympic qualifying tournament behind them and they’re off to a great start with wins in their first two games at this tournament.
Both the players and coaches have talked about turning the page and getting a fresh start. Not only have they done that, but they’ve done so convincingly. They were outshot 41-12 on Saturday game, but still came away with the win.
“In the past we were a good team. We are right now a good team and hopefully we will be a good team. The [Olympic qualifying] tournament in Japan doesn’t change anything. This is a new tournament and we started fresh,” said coach Benjamin Hinterstocker. “We are not happy with the game, that’s no secret. But also, it’s also tough to win a game like this. The women did pretty well. We had a solid defense. We blocked shots and worked hard and in the end, we scored more goals and that’s hockey.”
Goalie Ivonne Schroder wouldn’t take credit for the win, instead pointing out how active her defense was in blocking shots and keeping the Czechs off the board.
“Everybody trusts each other. Together we are strong,” she said. “Not qualifying for the Olympics was a big disappointment for the whole team but now we can see how strong the team can be. It’s a confidence builder.”
Laura Kluge has been a spark for the German offense. She scored the game-winner with just 1:37 left in the game on Saturday. She assisted on the first goal and had two helpers in Friday’s win over the Swedes.
“I think we are really confident right now and we will see what happens next,” she said. “We played the same at qualifications and it didn’t go that well, so it’s great that it went well now. I think we didn’t play the game we wanted to play, but we stayed focused in the defensive zone and used the chances we had on offense.”
The Germans round out their opening round play against Switzerland at noon on Monday, Sweden plays the Czech Republic at 6 pm ET.
Jennifer Harss and Ivonne Schroder both had stellar starts for the Germans in their first two games. Harss saved 31 shots against the Swedes and Harss held off 40 from the Czechs. Their solid contributions in net have given Germany the base on which to build the rest of their team.
“We as a German team, we need good goaltending to win games. A couple of years ago we brought a goalie coach into the program and he works with our goalies year round and games like yesterday and today and you can see that work paying off,” said Hinterstocker.
Joining the Americans as the only team with two wins in the first two days, it’s already been a successful tournament for the Germans, though they don’t plan for that to be the end of it.
Silence is deafening
Czech Republic goal-scorer Aneta Ledlova was without words to describe the game her team’s mindset after the loss. Clearly frustrated by a game where they dominated on shots but could not bury them and failed to keep the Germans off the board, she was unsure what to say to express her disappointment.
“It’s bad. We lost two games, one in overtime. We are sad. We wanted to play our best and show we can score goals,” she said.
United States 7, Russia 0
Brianna Decker, Kendall Coyne and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson each had a pair of goals to lead USA to a convincing win over Russia.
Decker now has three goals and two assists and currently leads the tournament in scoring with Coyne just behind her with two goals and two assists.
The Americans have received scoring from a variety of places in their first two games, even if the top line seemed to dominate on Saturday. Coach Robb Stauber emphasized that this group is focused on a team-first mentality. It worked for them off the ice and they’re using it to their advantage on the ice as well.
“We don’t care who scores,” said Stauber. “We don’t care who gets the assists. We don’t care who gets the shutout. We’re a team.It’s really, really important for the success of the team to be able to spread that scoring out. We do stress that. On any given night it can be one line versus or another.”.
The United States plays Finland at 7:30 pm ET on Monday.
Goalie Maddie Rooney got her first career start, echoing Nicole Hensley, the U.S. starter for Game 1. Hensley did well last time so it seemed an ideal situation to replicate the experiment.
And she handled it with ease. Just a sophomore in college at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, she grew tremendously in confidence and skill as their starter this season.
Not a particular effusive or talkative player, Rooney was very even-keeled after the game.
“This is definitely different from college. The skill is just so much better.” she said. “The shots release faster, it’s a more physical game. The pace is faster. I was a little nervous, but once I got through warmups I felt pretty good. This past season with college definitely gave me confidence going into this knowing I could play with top level players.”
That calm demeanor serves her well in net, but can sometimes leave her teammates unsure of where she’s at mentally.
“She never looks like she’s nervous at all. She scares folks because she looks like she’s ever uptight. It doesn’t scare me. I like people that have ice in their veins,” said Stauber.
Alex Rigsby is a little under the weather, but nothing to be concerned about, said Stauber. But regardless of her status, he likely would have made the same decisions about who to start.
With less than a year to Pyeongchang, Rigsby is the known entity and the others are fairly green. So Stabuer is using this tournament to help figure out where they stand. He said there are only so many international games to help test a player’s game-readiness. They can think a player will do well and expect her to do well, but the only way to know for sure is to test her out.
You can’t score if you don’t shoot
Stauber said he and his staff talked with Lamoureux-Davidson after Friday’s game. She wasn’t happy with how she played and Stauber’s advice was to relax and put the puck on net.
“She was a little frustrated last night. We could see the frustration. Sometimes when you’re a skilled player, you want to do too much – make one extra move,” he said.
So they told her to be more focused with putting the puck towards the goal and she did so emphatically with a slap-shot from the far faceoff dot that was a no-doubter. She had time to stop, tee up the shot and put it in as she didn’t have a defender within 10 feet.
Play to the Whistle
The Russians were mostly happy with their game save for a few big breakdowns. Four of the U.S. goals came in the final two minutes of a period and they scored in that window of each period.
Russian forward Iya Gavrilova said she thinks it was an important lesson for her teammates about playing the full 20 minutes of each period.
With the Americans pushing pace, the Russians were trying to trap and hold them in the neutral zone. When they got in trouble is when those strategies broke down. Few goalies in the country can handle a rush where Knight, Decker and Coyne are crashing the net, and the Russians let it happen more than once.
Sweden 2, Switzerland 1
Sweden’s Lisa Johansson capitalized on a 5-on-3 power play in the third period to give the Tre Kronor its first win of the tournament.
Switzerland’s Phoebe Staenz received a misconduct penalty for talking back to the referees and she said it was a good reminder for herself to not argue or worry about things that are out of her control. She also said it reminded her to not let things like that get in her head.
For Switzerland, the game was frustrating but a good experience in needing to capitalize and finish. Staenz said she didn’t feel like there were things that didn’t go right., it just came down to finishing.
“I definitely think we had enough chances, we just need to put them in with more conviction and be in front of the net and make sure that when we create those chances, we do capitalize on them.
Overall, [it was] a disappointing game because it didn’t go our way. [But] it definitely could have gone our way. Maybe in a way we needed this. I don’t think we started out the game against the Czech Republic very well, so this loss might give us enough fire to go into the Germany game and move on into the quarterfinals,” said Staenz.
Sweden’s Johnsson said that they didn’t set up the game-winning power play beforehand, but that it’s something they work on regularly. She likes the position at the near post and she’s scored a few goals that way during league play.
Now the team takes a moment to celebrate the win before taking a rest day and preparing for Germany.
“It’s always good to win, mentally and now we just prepare for the next game since we have to win to advance,” she said. “(We don’t react to pressure). We try to keep it out of the locker room. Just focus on what we can do and then what everyone else thinks is their business.”
Staenz said Switzerland's win on Friday didn’t give the team much of a high since it was a bit of a sloppy game for them.
“We didn’t start off too well. We got the win; that was good, so we need to step up. In a way, we did, in our own game, we did step up. Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way. We’re trying to make another step up into the Germany game so we’re ready going into quarterfinals.”
Peg Problems Continued
The tail of unstable goals and sub-par pegs continued in the second match to be played on the secondary rink in Plymouth. Swiss goalie Florence Schelling seemed to have problems with the goal staying moored and it led to a conference with the refs more than once.
After Sweden scored its first goal, Schelling, team captains, the officials and a member of the rink crew had a long discussion.
There did not appear to be further issue during the game, but the issues on Saturday lend credence to the complaints Finland goalie Noora Räty had after her game on the secondary rink Friday.