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.