Let’s Hear It For The Japanese Women’s Teams

In the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, like literally five minutes later, our opponents basically ceased to exist, be thought of, or mentioned. Part of this was the unfortunate nature of the way the U.S. won the game. But let’s acknowledge that most other teams would have folded immediately after that barrage of bad luck. The Japanese team showed amazing fortitude and resilience. Most teams would have simply folded. They scored two goals (granted, one an own goal) and remained competitive before our fifth broke them completely.

Aside from benefiting from an equally flukey success on the other side of the equation during their semifinal (and that own goal would not have happened had they not been pressing), Japan played a strong tournament that was largely overlooked. They once again presented a creative, dynamic, and organized possession style of soccer. For most of the tournament I was speculating about whether we could get their coaching staff to come work with the USWNT.

It is equally worth noting that Japan has success across the board in women’s sports. While its gender dynamics are different from those in the United States, they are equally patriarchal. Women face hurdles and lack of institutional support, the same as anywhere else, and that includes the Scandinavian countries with their vaunted claims to national feminism. Recall the Japanese men’s soccer team flying business class to the 2012 Olympics while the women, reigning World Cup champions, flew coach. As I understand it, though, there has historically been less resistance to girls participating in sport (correct me if I’m wrong there). Japan’s softball team is consistently among the best in the world, and their individual athletes pop up all the time in various sports. You can also see clearly the team sports where there is a national will to improve. Soccer was one of these. Japan used to have a reputation as an OK team that wasn’t physical enough and didn’t have ideas in the final third. Thanks to the rise of a few key players and the will to build a system, they are now an international powerhouse. Hockey is another. To have a nation lacking a long hockey history or culture be able to compete in the top tier and hold their own is a testament to the way Japan develops and trains its athletes, and the fortitude of these athletes. In all the hoopla over the U.S.’ win, let’s take a moment to remember and honor their opponents, and as hockey fans look forward to seeing their continued improvement.

Puck Drop In Sochi: Secret Weapons

Here are some lesser-known pieces of the puzzle for Canada and the U.S., and a few stars who could be crucial to the other national squads.

Defense is the forgotten part of the U.S.’s game, largely because of its intermittently powerful offense and strong goaltending.  Anne Schleper is the defensive stalwart who doesn’t turn the puck over, is very tough one-on-one, makes good decisions at the blue line, and is not particularly interested in joining the offense.  That’s a plus in that the U.S. needs its best defenders to stay close to home when facing even a semi-stagnant Canadian offense, especially with Bozek so frequently playing the offensive point.

Canada’s new coach appears to still be fiddling with its lines, apparently in the hope that this can take the pressure off its goaltending woes.  The team been quite successful in the past playing Haley Irwin and Rebecca Johnston together, and they need contributions from both these players to win.  In its last tune-up, Johnston was playing with Poulin, and that seemed to be an explosive pairing.  But Canada would be wise to remember that its best scoring chances may come against the U.S.’ third defensive group, and Irwin could be a real threat there.  It should also be a concern that Brianne Jenner’s name does not show up in those recent box scores.

Stefanie Marty scored 11 points in five games at the 2010 Olympics for Switzerland and was among the tournament leaders in point shares.  With Florence Schelling in goal the Swiss could be excused for thinking they don’t have to score much, but they have really struggled in international competition of late, going winless at the 2013 Worlds.

As I’ve noted before, Mira Jalusuo’s contributions to Minnesota’s national championship squads have been somewhat overlooked.  Finland’s shutdown defense will be what keeps it in contention, and Jalusuo has to contribute both to keeping the puck away from Noora Raty at least some of the time (because even the best goalie in the world can’t stop everything), and by creating chances on the offensive end.  Finland’s finish (ARGH, sending myself to the corner) at the Four Nations overshadowed its shocking upset by the Russians at Worlds this year.  The team managed to score only one goal. Obviously they improved a lot between tournaments, but which team will appear in Sochi?

Sweden was also notably defensively successful in the Four Nations Cup, and they needed to be because they didn’t score for beans.  Goaltender Valentina Wallner almost upset Canada with a 41-save, .911 save percentage performance that also saw her team score three goals.   The power play needs to improve significantly if Sweden is going to be a factor.

Russia has a minor boom and bust cycle with its team.  It is a disgrace that a country with such a distinguished history in men’s hockey, and an alleged commitment to gender equality (which was sometimes nominal in the USSR but seems to have gone out the window completely now), pays so little attention to developing its women’s team.  But given the stakes as Olympic hosts, Russia has been focusing more on its program in order that the team not be embarrassed on the international stage.  There was much press given to GM Alexei Yashin’s bold moves.  As the surprise Bronze medallist at 2013 Worlds, Russia led the tournament in penalty killing, was efficient in shooting accuracy, and among the leaders in save percentage.  Inexplicably, their most stingy goalie, Nadezhda Alexandrova, is not with the current team.  Their two top scorers, such as they were, the Yektarinas Smolina and Lebedeva, also return.

The German squad returns all but one of its players from a decent campaign at 2013 Worlds.  Franziska Busch is their minor offensive weapon, with four goals in five games.  Jennifer Harss put up excellent numbers, including a .947 save percentage.  But with literally one person on the team producing a positive +/-, Germany will not be breaking into the Big Two territory any time soon.

Japan qualified out of Group A, the lesser tier of international play, beating out traditional hockey nations like Denmark (to which it had a close overtime loss), Norway, and Slovakia.  Hanae Kubo tied for the tournament lead in scoring with 7 points and a +5.  The team scored in bunches (including several five-goal performances) and ended up potting ten more goals than it allowed.  However it is in the Olympics to round out the field, so hopefully its players don’t get too demoralized.  In the past Japan has handled its place in world competition with great dignity.

The Olympic hockey tournament kicks off on February 8th, with a very important Finland/U.S. tilt, plus Canada versus Switzerland.

Yes, Finland Has Some Excellent Players

A discussion has led me to the understanding that I need to be more precise with my wording from the end of the last post.  Finland has a lot of very strong position players (although if you look at the rosters posted where I just did they are all Swedes, since the names got switched).  A more accurate way to express what I was trying to say is: I am concerned about what will happen if they don’t show the same level of dynamism/commitment/general high level of play they produced at the Four Nations, especially given that a not-insignificant percentage of that play was produced by someone fairly old by international hockey standards.  But they also have Karvinen, who has carried North Dakota this year.  They have Jalusuo, who was an underrated part of Minnesota’s national championship teams.  They have Hiirikoski, who friend of the blog wwhyte has identified as a player to watch going forward.  That’s just a start.  Of course the key to this team is Raty, who can be the best goaltender in any tournament if she plays to her top form.  Finland beat the United States.  They played quite competitively against Canada.  I would like to see that same team show up in Sochi.

Canada Narrowly Escapes With Four Nations Gold

Get used to what happened last weekend, because if we are truly to reach parity in the international game we’ll be seeing a lot more of it.  I think this was a bit of a shadow play of what’s coming, however.  Teams such as Finland and Sweden need to be able to play two competitive games in a row if they are to scale the North American heights.  Finland might have managed it had the non-call on the penalty shot in the first gone the other way, but we’ll never know.

I didn’t see Sweden play but was impressed with the resilience of the Finnish team.  Raty is their biggest weapon but they proved they can garner goals at this level as well.  They do need to improve significantly on their power play, especially in the areas of finding the open player and getting shots off quickly.  Canada, despite its Swedish shake-up, probably doesn’t have a ton to worry about.  The team took far too many penalties in the final, but was able to escape a sometimes sluggish PK, which will need to be considerably sharpened going forward.  Szabados and Labonte both had minor struggles in goal, but I expect Szabados to emerge as the Olympic starter.  But Canada can still score like crazy which will make up for defensive deficiencies, although they do need to score consistently rather than streakily (two second period goals in the whole shebang).  I think the relative youth of this particular squad helped them in that regard.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. camp there ought to be serious consternation.  The U.S. came back and crushed a tired Sweden, but that’s too little too late.  I was already leery of some of Stone’s roster choices and that has only gotten worse as I’ve watched the U.S. squad regress from actually being the better team to losing three in a row to Canada and then the shocking Finland upset.  Yes, Raty clearly stood on her head, but when you take 59 goddamn shots (pardon my French) and only one goes in, your shooting and shot selection is part of the problem.  One for seven on the power play is absolutely woeful, and that’s when they were handed two gifts in the form of delay of game penalties to Raty.  This also goes to show that face-off percentage means nothing if you don’t capitalize.  67-17  advantage and one goal.  Alongside the offense, we may also have something of a goaltending situation on our hands.  An .862 SV for the tournament, dead last, is unacceptable.  In short, every facet of the U.S. game needs to be reanalyzed prior to Sochi.  It is too late to get some new defenders, but shaking up the pairings couldn’t hurt, as could line shuffling.  I will have some detailed thoughts on that soon, not that it will influenced anyone 😉

Although I am happy to see some competition at the top, including the improvements of the Russian and Swiss squads whom we will meet in Sochi, I would like to see that translate into everyone playing well, not the top teams contributing by dropping a level.

U-18 Series To Begin Tomorrow

This is one of the highlights of the developmental player calendar.  The U.S. and Canada will play thrice starting tomorrow at 4 ET/1 PT.  All the games will be on FastHockey for eight bucks a pop (unless you buy game credits in bulk, and then you get a modest discount).

The U.S. lost the gold medal in overtime at the 2013 World Championships.  That may sound like a harsh formulation (surely Canada won it?) but when you give up a tying goal with twelve seconds to go, you’ve blown the game.  The squad will have to show resilience and resolve to come back from that difficult loss.  Helpfully not too many on the ice will remember it, since the vast majority of top players including the starting goaltender have aged out.  Key returnees include  Cianfarano who scored six points in the WJC and put up 35 goals for NSA last year.  Wellhausen also acquitted herself well and is the only SSM member who put up big-ish numbers on last year’s Prep squad.  These players need to adjust to being full-time, first line options now.  Maddie Rolfes  led the tournament in unadjusted plus/minus.  Miano and Brand will be preparing to step into the huge skate-shaped holes left by Pankowski on NAHA white. The young goaltending, however, is probably the biggest concern.  Bugalski has more international experience in goal but my sense is O’Neil, coming out of the hothouse that is Minnesota public, can contend.

Much will be learned from watching the games, which is how I always finish these previews, and once I report back on Friday I will have a better sense of how the team gels, and also something to say about Canada’s players.

That’s No Way To Lose A Hockey Game

Apologies for the radio silence.  It has taken me a long time to get over the end of that gold medal game.  This is the first time I’ve ever seen the two teams play in which I thought the Americans were legitimately the better side, and didn’t need a help from good fortune to pull off the win.  The U.S. had it in the bag, man.  Then, an idiotic late penalty (“well, that’s boarding”) led to the tie, and the winning golden goal came off a botched line change.  Sigh.

Live-Tweeting The Gold Medal Game

Yes, it is Shabbat.  And a major second-day holiday to boot.  So I am going to hell.  But provided that there is not another TwitterFail 2012, I will be tweeting U.S. versus Canada Part Deux: Let’s Try To Show Up This Time, Canucks, Although Some Of Us Would Be Fine With A Repeat over at @FirstLineHockey.  Please join me.