Familiar faces battling for women’s gold in Kamloops
Still stinging from a wild 7-5 gold medal loss to the archrival Americans last year, Canada is bringing back some vets in hopes of taking revenge on home ice.
All-time leading scorer Hayley Wickenheiser missed Malmo with a foot injury; 2010 Olympic MVP Meghan Agosta was busy pursuing a career with the Vancouver police department; and two-time World Championship all-star defender Meaghan Mikkelson took time off to start a family. All three are back.
Wickenheiser and Mikkelson – along with fellow Calgary Inferno and national team members Rebecca Johnston and Brianne Jenner – are riding an additional high after winning the Clarkson Cup in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) playoffs earlier this month.
Familiar faces abound for Canada, which has won the last four Olympic golds. Just two players will make their World Championship debut under head coach Laura Schuler: goaltender Erica Howe and forward Blayre Turnbull.
Barring a shocker like Sweden’s 2006 Olympic semi-final upset of the United States, this year’s Women’s Worlds will culminate in another North American showdown.
The Americans are gunning for their third consecutive world title. That would set them up beautifully to host the 2017 tournament, slated for the USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan.
USA Hockey isn’t messing with success, either. Eighteen out of the 23 players selected were members of the 2015 gold medal squad in Sweden. And returning head coach Ken Klee’s key attackers will be firing on all cylinders.
Hilary Knight, the world’s top power forward, and Brianna Decker, Knight’s fleet-footed linemate, teamed up to capture the first-ever Isobel Cup with the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), which has become the CWHL’s archrival as the first women’s league to pay salaries. Decker’s nine points in four games earned her playoff MVP honours. Not coincidentally, Knight and Decker also finished 1-2 in scoring at last year’s Women’s Worlds.
Scoring runs deep through the roster. For instance, Kendall Coyne is the only woman to hit 50 goals in NCAA Division I play with Northeastern this season, and Boston College teammates Alex Carpenter and Haley Skarupa have excelled in the college scoring race too.
Factor in a deep blueline corps featuring the likes of 2015 all-star Monique Lamoureux, Kacey Bellamy and Megan Bozek, and the U.S. will be tough to knock off.
Still lingering over this event will be memories of Sochi. In the 2014 Olympic gold medal game versus Canada, the Americans had a 2-0 lead with under four minutes to play. But it fell apart. After Brianne Jenner cut the deficit to 2-1, U.S. forward Kelli Stack hit the post with Canada’s net empty. Marie-Philip Poulin tied it up in the dying seconds before breaking U.S. hearts with the overtime winner at 8:10. (Poulin, who also scored both Canadian goals in the 2-0 gold medal victory in Vancouver 2010, was the CWHL’s MVP this season.)
The Americans have not won an Olympic final since the inaugural one in 1998. So gold in Kamloops would also be an important stepping stone while building toward the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, Korea.
Bronze is the target for Group A’s other two teams, Finland and Russia. The Finns, in fact, have played for bronze at every Women’s Worlds dating back to 1990, and came third in Malmo.
The Finns haven’t had superstar Noora Raty between the pipes since 2014, but they’re coming back with Meeri Raisanen, who made last year’s tournament all-star team, and, like Raty, played against men in the Finnish third division this season. The ever-nifty and tireless Jenni Hiirikoski, named Best Defender at the last three Women’s Worlds, anchors the blue line. Forward Riikka Valila, still shining at age 43, will spearhead the attack with the explosive Michelle Karvinen.
Can Russia medal for just the third time in its history after taking bronze in 2001 and 2013? Forwards Olga Sosina and Iya Gavrilova led the way offensively in Malmo. The diminutive but powerful 17-year-old Fanuza Kadirova was an all-star at January’s U18 Championship in St. Catharines, and if she can muster up some Pavel Bure-esque finish in Kamloops, it’d be a huge plus. Buckling down on defence is a must, however. Russia’s 13-1 loss to the U.S. was last year’s most lopsided defeat.
In Group B action at the 1,000-capacity McArthur Island Centre, the Swiss and Swedes can’t be discounted as bronze contenders either. Switzerland’s Alina Muller joined Kadirova as a U18 all-star this year, and her fierce will to win matches her skills package. It’ll be interesting to see how Swiss league scoring leader Christine Huni (nee Meier), a five-time Worlds participant and two-time Olympian, fares in her return to international hockey after a five-year absence. Yet the key to success will almost certainly be goalie Florence Schelling, the 2014 Olympic MVP.
Despite successes at the Olympics, including the 2006 silver, the Damkronorna shockingly haven’t medalled at the Women’s Worlds since 2007.
Coach Leif Boork must hope his team produces more than in its last Kamloops appearance at the 2014 Four Nations Cup. There, Sweden was blanked in three straight losses before edging Finland for bronze. They’ll need production from Pernilla Winberg and 2015 team scoring leader Anna Borgqvist. Sara Grahn’s goaltending must also stand up.
Meanwhile, Japan and the Czech Republic will likely wind up in the best-of-three Relegation Round. The Japanese, who notched an historic shootout win over host Sweden to open last year’s tournament, may have the edge. Nana Fujimoto was named 2015’s Best Goalie. The newly promoted Czechs managed one win in their lone previous Women’s Worlds (2013, 3-2 over Sweden), and will rely heavily on the leadership of forward Alena Polenska.
In 2015, interestingly, the first-day results mirrored the last-day results: the U.S. defeated Canada, and Finland beat Russia. Whether the medal game matchups on April 4 this year are the same or different, players, fans, media, and volunteers in Kamloops are in for a true spectacle at the Women’s World Championship.
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