February 21 – Day 133 – Round four

Six games on this Wednesday’s schedule might be a low number, but don’t misinterpret that as a bad night of action – there’s more than a few games to be seen!

Like we have the last week or so, we begin our hockey day in PyeongChang at the Olympics. Canada vs. Finalnd and Sweden vs. Germany, the final two quarterfinal matchups in the men’s tournament, are scheduled to drop the puck at 7:10 a.m. Eastern time.

Back in the NHL, it’s a typical light Wednesday schedule with only three tilts on the board. The action starts at 8 p.m. when Ottawa at Chicago (NHLN/SN/TVAS), but the next game – Dallas at Anaheim – isn’t slated to begin until 10 p.m. Finally, the league’s nightcap features Calgary at Vegas and gets underway at 10:30 p.m. All times Eastern.

Back at the Olympics, there’s only one game being played and it’s a doozy: Team Canada is squaring off against Team USA in the women’s gold medal game, scheduled for 11:10 p.m. Eastern time.

Of note in NHL action this evening, D Johnny Oduya is making his return to Chicago after spending five seasons with the Blackhawks. However, there’s nothing – not even what should be an excellent matchup between the Canadians and Finns in the men’s tournament – that can distract us from what is sure to be another excellent game between the powerhouses of the women’s game!

 

Let’s talk stats before we even think about jumping into the arguably even more important narrative associated with this game.

Having won Group A, 4-0-0-0 Canada enters this game as the top-seeded team in the women’s Olympic tournament even though it is currently second in the IIHF rankings behind the USA.

The reason for the Canadians’ success is easy to see. Their four goals per game and .5 goals against per game are both the best of any team in the tournament, and the 25 shots against they allow per game is fourth-best.

There have been few lines in the women’s tournament as dominant as Team Canada’s top-three forwards. Of those, none have shined brighter than F Melodie Daoust, who’s posted incredible 3-3-6 totals in only four games played. She’s joined by F Meghan Agosta (2-2-4) and F Marie-Philip Poulin (2-3-5) on the line, making them a dangerous threat to score on every shift they take.

F Rebecca Johnston has also been impressive from the second line with her 3-2-5 totals, but where she really earns her roster spot is on the power play. Two of her three goals have been struck while the Canadians have an extra skater, and she accounts for half of her team’s power play goals.

As mentioned before, Canada’s defense has been only average in this Olympic tournament, but average is all Head Coach Laura Schuler needs when she has not one… not two… but three stellar goaltenders at her disposal. Ann-Renee Desbiens, Genevieve Lacasse and Shannon Szabados have all been tremendous when they’ve taken to the crease, as they’ve combined to allow only two goals in four showings (Desbiens and Szabados both have one shutout apiece) with save percentages that are all above 97 percent.

Considering she was in net for the elimination game against the OAR in the semifinals, it would seem likely Szabados will get the nod tonight with Lacasse as her backup, but I’m under the impression Canada could find success with any of these three commanding the crease.

If Canada is in the red corner, 3-0-0-1 Team USA is in the blue. Having counted the days since February 20, 2014 (more on that in a moment), the Americans are more than excited to play this game, and they have just the strengths to win this game.

The Canadians may be able to claim the best offense and goals-against, but Team USA is right behind them in the rankings. America boasts scoring an average of 3.5 goals per game, led in large part by the incredible efforts of second-liner F Dani Cameranesi, who leads the team with her 3-2-5 totals in four showings. Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson has also been exemplary, averaging a point per game with her 3-1-4 marks from the third line.

While the offense is good, the Ice Yanks’ defense is even better. Having allowed only 18.5 shots against per game, Team USA’s defense tops all teams at the Olympics. That’s made life all too easy for G Maddie Rooney, who’s posted a solid .951 save percentage for a 1.01 GAA in three games. Pair her effort with the defense, and Team USA’s .75 goals against-per-game is second-best in PyeongChang.

As mentioned before, the stats are only half the story in this game as the rivalry between these two nations is easily the world’s fiercest and most competitive in the women’s game.

Looking back at recent results of the world’s biggest tournaments, the Americans should be the clear favorites to win the gold medal. They’ve won four-consecutive IIHF World Championships (2013, 2015-’17) and three-consecutive Four Nations Cups (2015-’17).

However, that success has not extended to the Olympic Games, and it’s a curse that extends way back to 2002. After winning the inaugural gold in women’s ice hockey in 1998, Team USA has had to settle for three silvers (including the last two in 2010 and 2014) and a 2006 bronze.

Well, curse is the right word only if you’re from the United States. For one team to win all those World Championships and Four Nations Cups, another team has to lose.

Enter Canada, the four-time runners-up at the IIHF World Championships (2013, 2015-’17) and three-time runners-up at the Four Nations Cup (2015-’17). While those results are undoubtedly disappointing, the Canadians will gladly take those lumps if it prepared them to win their fifth-consecutive Olympic gold.

Team Canada has dominated Olympic competition over the past 20 years. In addition to winning four-consecutive gold medals (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014), Canada also took silver in the inaugural 1998 competition. That means this is Canada’s sixth-consecutive appearance in the gold medal game, a streak better than most teams’ medal counts in this tournament.

The Olympic Rings are on the ice tonight, but does this mean it’s going to be an easy victory for Team Canada? Hardly so, as they – just like Team USA will have to do to win – will have to earn every inch of the ice in what should be an incredibly competitive match.

Just take into account the preview to this game that we witnessed only a week ago. Behind an incredible 44-for-45 save effort (.978 save percentage) from Lacasse, Team Canada was able to hold on to a 2-1 victory. Both teams showed great resilience in that game to register one even-strength goal apiece, but it was D Megan Keller’s interference penalty 7:18 into the second period that ultimately cost the Americans the victory, as Agosta (F Natalie Spooner and F Brianne Jenner) was able to turn the resulting power play into a goal 1:30 later.

Of course, maybe the even more important preview might have occurred four years ago (almost to the day) in the Sochi gold medal game. With goals from F Meghan Duggan and F Alexandra Carpenter, the Americans had a 2-0 advantage with five minutes separating them from the championship.

However, the Canadians are never eliminated until the fat lady sings. Jenner began the comeback with 3:26 remaining in regulation, setting the score at 2-1.

That’s okay, right? Team USA still has a one-goal lead and is inches from the finish line! In fact, the defense and G Jessie Vetter were keeping Canada at bay, holding on to that lead with only a minute until the final horn…

And then it happened. With Szabados pulled for the extra attacker, Poulin leveled the game with only 55 ticks left on the clock, setting up an overtime period that lasted 8:10 before Poulin would score again to clinch her second Olympic gold in as many tries.

It goes without saying, but Team USA cannot afford another collapse like that.

Now comes the tough job of picking the winner of this game. In case it wasn’t brutally apparent, I certainly have my rooting interests in this game and desperately want to see the Americans succeed. However, having seen Team Canada already win Group A and knowing the Americans’ history at the Olympics, I know this will be a very difficult game to win.

If the Americans are going to win this game, they’re going to need their defense to continue to play lights out like it has all tournament, and they also just might need a little bit of luck to beat Szabados. It’s certainly possible for that to happen, but Canada’s success at this tournament year after year (well, four years after four years) will leave me doubting until the clock officially reaches 0:00.