Comparing the top two teams in women’s hockey seems almost useless if sweeping pronouncements and firm predictions are the goals. The attempt to find an edge, however slight, has dominated the rivalry and it results in small swings of momentum but no true separation. Women’s Hockey Stats shows the U.S. leading by a wide margin in point shares, but that is based on 2012-2013 statistics and my sense is that this has been a much different year. Certainly there was a string of Canadian victories to begin the season. That has now been followed by a U.S. winning streak. It’s despair for the analyst but great fun for the fan.
What Canada needs: faster starts, goaltending clarity, a youth movement. It can only get one of those in advance of the tournament. I think Hockey Canada will point to the fact that the last two games of the pre-Olympic tour were significantly closer to justify their precipitous action on the Dan Church front (I hadn’t realized Church left on the morning of the Dec. 12th game rather than afterward; that is a stunning lack of professionalism on somebody’s part). Yet this is still a team that lacks a complete identity. Is it a gritty, physical group of grinders in the Wickenheiser mode? It is transitioning to Poulin-style speed? Canada has lost effectiveness and confidence in goal. The shootout in St. Paul was a foregone conclusion, and the selection of shooters sure didn’t help. The team has no clear number one given Szabados’ recent struggles, but should stick with her international experience and positive track record in the absence of a strong alternative. Canada also needs to find a way to score when not on special teams. There seems to be an inordinate amount of trust placed in certain older players that is not current-performance-justified (see the absence of Daou from the first three in the shootout). However, the team has managed to play its way out of deficits and if the young forwards continue to take advantage of the lack of U.S. focus, Canada can repeat its trip to the top of the podium. Although please let the players not repeat their poorly-chosen celebratory tactics; cigars are disgusting.
What the U.S. needs: to play all three periods, more dynamic scoring, smarter shot selection. Wow, this record is stuck in a groove, isn’t it? (Alert: outdated metaphor). After a mostly challenging 2013 that featured several lopsided losses to Canada and a ridiculous upset to a determined Finland at the Four Nations, the U.S. has pulled together four consecutive victories heading into the Olympics. The team still shows weaknesses, the most significant being the inability to finish games, especially defensively, and long periods of offensive stagnation. The Kessel injury has definitely played a role there. But at least two and ideally three lines are going to have to take advantage of Canada’s defensive struggles and score some even-strength goals. Knight’s line and the power play cannot be the only production. Stack has been the key to that line, but returning her to centering Jocelyne Lamoureaux might spark some action. A plethora of shots from the point are not going to get it done, especially in a lower-scoring Olympic contest. Taking advantage of turnovers and smart puck possession will make the difference.
Dark horse team: Finland. If Finland can play as well as it did at the Four Nations, it will win bronze in Sochi and potentially challenge the top tier. Unfortunately its best non-goaltending player is over forty. Keeping it close against a more prepared U.S. team in the opening game will tell all.