Friday, 7 April 2017

More Than Two Teams

The Women's World Championship in Plymouth, Michigan ended tonight with the same two teams battling for the gold medal as the previous EVERY world championship, so you'll excuse me if I seem a little disinterested in the outcome tonight. The hockey was top-notch as the best women's players battled for glory, and the game once again went to overtime as the two most-accomplished women's national squads went full-tilt in the extra frame. In the end, the Americans won on a Hilary Knight goal to give them the 3-2 victory and the gold medal over the Canadians, but excuse me if I found the bronze medal game to more intriguing.

Finland had never finished lower than fourth-place while Germany had taken major steps forward after failing to qualify for the Olympics. This game featured a team whose consistency has been near-equal to that of Canada and the US while an up-and-coming nation had taken steps further than programs who were thought to be on the precipice of more in Russia and Switzerland. While the final in the bronze medal game wasn't indicative of how far Germany came, it was a display of hockey with which the Finns were very happy.

In the end, Finland brushed Germany aside with an 8-0 win in capturing the bronze medal while Noora Raty posted another shutout in her already-impressive career. After taking Canada down in the round-robin, Finland has a lot to be excited for when they arrive in South Korea for the Olympics. However, they fully admit that the work needed has only just begun.

"I think this was a big step forward," Finnish captain Jennie Hiirikoski told IIHF's Andrew Podnieks, "especally looking to next season and the Olympics. We're going to be playing and practising with boys next year, and that will help us get to the next level."

With the success that both the Finnish men's and women's teams have had, combining forces is an interesting experiment to see which team influences the other more. Finland, for the first time ever, beat Canada this year in the women's tournament while the men's program has seen World Junior Championship success to lead them into a new era of hockey. There's no doubt that Finland is in the mix when it comes to the top-three hockey nations on the planet for both the men and women, but the question needing to be asked is how much higher they can go.

"It's a good ending," Raty told Podnieks. "I think we made a good statement here that we might have separated from the rest of the Europeans and actually have a real chance of playing in the finals one day."

Raty's statement is entirely true in that Finland is the best nation in Europe as it stands. They have great scoring, solid defence, and outstanding goaltending. Teams like Sweden, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Russia weren't even on the same level as Finland when it came to the performances seen at this tournament. Raty's comments of having a chance of playing in the finals is probably closer than she says based on their performances against the Canadians and Americans in their pool. That being said, there's still work to do based on the 4-0 loss the Finns took in the semifinal against Canada.

When all is said and done, Finland looks like it should nearly be a lock for a medal in Pyeongchang during the 2018 Winter Olympiad. It will be up to them to determine what colour that medal is.

On the other side of this game, the Germans took a second-straight beating at the hands of one of the best teams on the planet. The Americans dropped an 11-0 thrashing on the Germans in the semifinal before the Finns systematically picked them apart in the 8-0 loss in the bronze-medal game. But those two losses should be considered the measuring stick in how far Germany still has to go when it comes to all the success they experienced in this tournament. That being said, they experienced a ton of success they had never seen before.

The Germans opened the tournament with a surprising 3-1 win over former European powerhouse Sweden before downing the Czech Republic by a 2-1 score the very next day. While they dropped a 4-2 game against the Swiss, they had already qualified for the quarterfinal with Sweden defeating Switzerland and the Swiss downing the Czech Republic. Considering Germany was eliminated from Olympic qualifications on February 12, the turnaround and drive they showed at the World Championship was nothing short of impressive.

"We started pretty well in the tournament, but as you can see on the ice against Canada, the United States, and Finland, the gap is big," Germany head coach Benjamin Hinterstocker admitted to Podnieks. "We don't have to talk about which team is the better one, but overall, we should be happy for the team and women's hockey in Germany. I think we represented German women's hockey well."

I think Hinterstocker should be a little more proud of his squad because they exceeded almost everyone's expectations at this tournament based on their previous results at the Olympic qualifying tournament. Jennifer Harss, the German netminder, was outstanding, and they got balanced scoring when playing teams more on their level. While they won't be in Pyeongchang, the performance at this year's World Championship should have everyone in Germany excited about their potential.

While the Americans hoisted the trophy and Canada accepted their silver medals after an outstanding final once more, the real story lines in this tournament were the emergence of Finland as a potential superpower and the resurgence of Germany after disappointment one month earlier. There will always be some who just see the North American teams as the only two teams in women's international hockey, but the Finns are proving they shouldn't be underestimated and the Germans are reminding everyone not to count them out.

Well done, ladies!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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