GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 15: Finland's Jenni Hiirikoski #6 gets a pass off with pressure from Olympic Athletes from Russia's Anna Shokhina #97 during preliminary round action at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)
FIN and OAR plot surprise for big guns
Conventional wisdom says that the women’s final is destined to pit Canada against the USA once again. But don’t mention that to Finland or OAR.
Historically, Canada and the USA have dominated the women’s gold medal game. Only once, in 2006, has a European team gatecrashed the party. In 2018, it’s up to Finland and the Olympic Athletes from Russia to try to change that script.
And both teams are determined to make their mark on Monday when the women’s semi-finals are played at the 10,000-seater Gangneung Hockey Arena. Finland goes off first against team USA, looking to improve on a 1-3 reverse in group-stage play – and sounding a warning after firing in 12 goals in its last two games against OAR and Sweden.
Emma Nuutinen, a goalscorer in Finland’s 7-2 drubbing of the Swedes, was full of fighting talk. “I definitely think the USA should be a little afraid of us,” she said. “I'm very excited and I think we are ready to challenge them. We just have to play our best game and I think we are able to do big things.”
For teammate Michelle Karvinen, the key thing is going to be team-work. The Finns had six different scorers against Sweden, pointing to an offence that is capable of getting goals from several lines. “Our team game was the best thing about our quarter-final,” she said. “We really helped each other, we put each other in good spots and made it easy. Getting seven goals is never a bad thing, going into the semis.
“It's definitely good for our confidence to know that we don't have to rely on a couple of players for goals. We have an amazing team and we have all the possibilities in the world to make the final.”
So, how can Finland stop the Americans? According to goalie Noora Raty, it’s all about controlling the USA offence.
“We just need to tighten up the defence and not let them walk in the middle,” she said. “If we keep them outside in our zone, we should be fine. Then of course, we need to put some goals on the board. You won’t win with one or two goals against the U.S.”
And Minnamari Tuominen is hoping to build on an encouraging performance in the group stage against an American team that was reluctant to launch into all-out attack.
“I noticed they were playing a bit differently,” she said. “The first game we played them here, I was a little bit surprised that they were always pulling it back to their D-zone, they didn’t have all five attacking. I like playing that game! Just come the same way!”
For the OAR camp, the prospect of playing Canada once again is a daunting one. The Canadians eased to a 5-0 victory when the teams met in the group phase and have never lost in Olympic or World Championship play against the Russians. Head coach Alexei Chistyakov admitted that the North American nations are at a higher level, but talked up what his team has achieved so far in Korea.
“We’ve achieved great things already, we’ve never got to the last four of an Olympic tournament before,” he said. “But that’s only a small step in the right direction. Of course, it’s likely that we’ll end up playing for bronze, but we’ve got no intention of just rolling over for Canada.
“Nobody believed in us before the Olympics, the media buried us even before the Games began. Yes, we had some heavy losses, but if you look in the history books, you’ll see how we suffered heavier defeats in the past.”
And for Anna Shokhina, whose two goals led the way in the 6-2 quarter-final victory over Switzerland, the history books are meaningless.
“I don’t agree that it’s a hopeless case [against Canada],” she said. “We can beat them. Canada may have always beaten us in the past, but that doesn’t mean anything here. We'll battle, we'll fight, we'll try everything to get a win.”
And Yelena Dergachyova reckons that the semi-final match-up with Canada will be closer than the 0-5 loss in the group phase, because the Olympic Athletes are now playing the kind of hockey they want to produce.
“In our first games here, we couldn’t take our chances,” she said. “That all changed. When we get our passing game going, when we play for each other, it all goes better. Of course, it won’t be easy against Canada, but we’ll go out there and give it a real go.”