Group A (Herning)
“How do you stop Canada?” That’s the question every other Group A team is asking – along with Canada’s potential quarter-final opponents from Group B.
The Canadians come in as the reigning Olympic and Women’s Worlds champions. Since installing Troy Ryan as head coach, they have won 14 consecutive IIHF games, including 13 in regulation and the 3-2 gold-medal overtime win over the archrival Americans at the 2021 Women’s Worlds in Calgary. At the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, their goal difference (57-10) was even more devastating than in Calgary (34-7). Playing the proverbial 200-foot-game with speed, skill, and physicality, they are setting the standard in every department.
For another nation, the absence of forwards like 2018 Olympic and 2021 Women’s Worlds MVP Melodie Daoust, perennial all-star candidate Natalie Spooner, and three-time Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Johnston would be a crushing blow. Yet with captain Marie-Philip Poulin leading the way in superstar form at age 31, Canada is unlikely to suffer offensively. One of the few non-PWHPA players on the roster, 22-year-old Sarah Fillier (Princeton), is already being touted as the successor to “Pou.” And with Olympic scoring champ Sarah Nurse (5+13=18) and tournament MVP Brianne Jenner (9+5=14), they’ve got all the veteran savvy you could ask for.
Factor in arguably the world’s top current starting goalie in Ann-Renee Desbiens (1.80 GAA, 94.0 save percentage in Beijing) and hard-rock veteran defenders like Jocelyne Larocque and Renata Fast, and opponents should struggle almost as much to score on Canada as to keep pucks out of their own net. Claire Thompson had a spectacular Olympic debut with a single-tournament points record for blueliners (2+11=13), and her non-participation could mean a slight reduction of offence from the back end, but that’s about it. A little more sandpaper, a little less silk. It’s still gold or bust.
Pasi Mustonen, Finland’s head coach since 2015, handed over the reins to Juuso Toivola after one game at the 2022 Olympics due to a family health emergency. Well before that, Mustonen spoke repeatedly about how it had taken years to build the right blend of veteran experience and skill to produce the historic silver-medal Cinderella at the 2019 Women’s Worlds in Espoo.
Under Toivola, the Finns remain in a rebuilding phase, but are still the perennial third-place favourites. That’s where Suomi sits in the IIHF Women’s World Ranking. They claimed the bronze medal at the last Women’s Worlds and Olympics.
Secondary scoring is the primary concern. In both Calgary and Beijing, Finland’s top three scorers came from the top line of Petra Nieminen, Susanna Tapani, and Michelle Karvinen. To challenge the Canadians or Americans, especially 5-on-5, a real breakout tournament for 20-year-old attackers like perennial Naisten Liiga scoring leader Elisa Holopainen or Viivi Vainikka, a two-time SDHL champion with Lulea, would go a long way. The slippery Sanni Vanhanen, 17, is coming off a tournament all-star berth with the bronze Finnish squad at June’s U18 Women’s Worlds in Wisconsin.
Having the most individually decorated blueliner in IIHF women’s history in tireless captain Jenni Hiirikoski, 35, is an asset that speaks for itself. Nelli Laitinen, 20, took another big step forward in production as she led all Finnish rearguards in Olympic scoring (2+5=7). And Hiirikoski’s Lulea teammate Ronja Savolainen remains one of the biggest presences in European hockey. That said, the depth overall isn’t quite there compared to the North Americans.
However, with the skill and focus of starting netminder Anni Keisala – Best Goalie at the 2021 Women’s Worlds – between the pipes, the Finns should take anything other than another bronze as unacceptable.
In many respects, Japanese women’s hockey is cresting at the moment. Sixth-place finishes at both the 2021 Women’s Worlds and 2022 Olympics were high-water marks for the national team. Recently, Japan has defeated rivals like Czechia, Germany, and Sweden. With the Russians disqualified from international competition, the well-drilled Japanese under head coach Yuji Iizuka now get to apply their grit and skills in Group A. How will they fare?
Japan’s ability to deliver a full 60 minutes is never in doubt. However, this roster features some major changes from Beijing as we head into a new Olympic quad cycle.
Goaltender Nana Fujimoto, the backbone of the team whose top-level Women’s Worlds debut came in 2008, isn’t on this roster. That could place a big burden on 27-year-old Akane Konishi, who saw Olympic action in the 6-2 win over Denmark and 7-1 quarter-final loss to Finland. The soon-to-be Vanersborgs HC netminder had only ever appeared in one game at most in her prior IIHF competitions, dating back to the 2014 Olympics.
Long-time captain Chiho Osawa, 30, announced her retirement at the start of August. From Rui Ukita, a long-time offensive threat, to Hanae Kubo, the 39-year-old who is as close to Finland’s ageless wonder Riika Sallinen as Japan’s ever had, the forward group also lacks some key names. So it’s a chance for younger players to step up.
Forward Haruka Toko, 25, led the Olympic team in scoring (3+3=6) and is poised to make her SDHL debut with Linkopings HC in 2022-23. Akane Shiga, 21, has definite game-breaker potential. She led Japan with four goals at the last Women’s Worlds, including both markers when her team fell 10-2 to the Americans in the quarter-finals. She also had Japan’s lone goal in the Olympic quarter-final.
Meanwhile, the defence corps will lean on the experience and leadership of two-time Olympians like Shiga’s big sister, 23-year-old Aoi Shiga, and Akane Hosoyamada, who is 30. However, up and down the roster, there will be a learning curve for the many new faces, and for Japan to upset any of its Group A foes will be a big challenge.
In one respect, the Swiss women’s national team has a problem similar to that facing the Edmonton Oilers. Both teams have two elite, world-class forwards – Switzerland’s Alina Muller and Lara Stalder and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl – and then a fairly steep drop-off up front.
Producing offence has thus been a challenge for the Swiss. When Muller got knocked out of the 2021 Women’s Worlds with an injury after scoring Switzerland’s lone goal in a 3-1 opening loss to the Russians, Switzerland miraculously scraped out a fourth-place finish – despite totalling just five goals in the entire tournament. That reflects the value of Muller, a 24-year-old Patty Kazmaier Award finalist from Northeastern University, who helped Switzerland win an historic 2014 Olympic bronze medal at age 15. She has excelled with 10 points at both of the last two Winter Games.
Another fourth-place finish followed in Beijing. Stalder – a 28-year-old sniper who has won three straight SDHL scoring titles with Brynas Gavle – got the winner when Switzerland shocked Finland 3-2 in the group, and then Muller led the way with a pair in the 4-2 quarter-final win over ROC.
Realistically, if these two aces aren’t going, the Swiss are going nowhere in Group A. Hopes are high for offensive support from Alini Marti, 18, entering her second Women’s Worlds as a Swiss champ with ZSC Lions Frauen and coming off seven points in seven games at June’s U18 Women’s Worlds in Wisconsin. If fellow forward Evelina Raselli, 30, can rediscover the touch that got her four points at the 2018 Olympics, that’d be a nice bonus.
On defence, Lara Christen, a 19-year-old ZSC Lions Frauen member who potted three points in Beijing, shows good promise. But in any scenario, starting goalie Andrea Braendli, 25, is likely to be extremely busy again. The long-time Ohio State star, who heads to Boston University next year, faced a tournament-high 242 shots in Beijing.
If Braendli isn’t lights-out, the Swiss could find themselves tangling with Japan to avoid fifth place in Group A rather than vying for another bronze medal. Their only other IIHF bronze came at the 2012 Women’s Worlds with the legendary Florence Schelling between the pipes.
For the Americans, these Women’s Worlds in Denmark are an opportunity for a big reset. At this writing a year ago, the U.S. was still the reigning Olympic and world champion. That, of course, included a long COVID-19-imposed pause, given that the 2020 Women’s Worlds in Nova Scotia were cancelled and the 2021 sequel slated for that spring was postponed.
Regardless, it’s safe to say that the core leadership group with captain Kendall Coyne Schofield, all-time U.S. leading scorer Hilary Knight, and three-time Olympic defender Lee Stecklein didn’t expect to find themselves as clear silver-medal favourites in 2022.
Make no mistake: these are all great warriors, along with sniper Alex Carpenter and playmaker Amanda Kessel. But as they push or pass age 30, what they can provide is likely to stabilize at best or start to decline. For the U.S to grab its crown back from Canada, it’s essential for younger players to start driving the bus.
In Calgary and Beijing, former head coach Joel Johnson got criticism for limiting the minutes of budding stars like defenders Jincy Dunne (25) and Caroline Harvey (19) and forwards Grace Zumwinkle (23) and Abby Roque (24). Each has shown flashes of “best in the world” potential.
That trend appears likely to change under Johnson’s replacement, John Wroblewski. A newcomer to women’s hockey, he oversaw the 2001-born U.S. National Team Development Program class that featured NHL-bound uber-talents like Jack Hughes, Cole Caufield, and Trevor Zegras. Expect a return to the confident, creativity-driven style that propelled the Americans to five straight world titles and the 2018 Olympic gold medal between 2013 and 2019.
The goaltending trio of Nicole Hensley, Maddie Rooney, and Aerin Frankel gives Wroblewski plenty of strong options versus Canada and the Finns. But until proven otherwise, the Americans are 1B, not 1A, for now.