Saturday, 8 November 2014

These Two Again

There were a pile of NHL games on last night, but I decided to watch the final game of the Four Nations Cup simply due to the fact that Team USA and a much younger Team Canada were facing off for all the marbles once more on the international stage. Despite not having all the veterans that Canada usually brings, it was evident that these two teams didn't leave any animosity towards one another at home. The game was chippy, it was fast, and it was good! I honestly missed nothing that the NHL was delivering as the women were at each others' throats all night!

I have to say that Team USA is still impressive. Yes, they brought a lot of good young players to the tournament, but a lot o these women played in the Sochi Olympics. The new kids only add to the overall talent level of the squad, though, so they were missing no one on the roster in terms of skill or talent. The Team USA squad is going to be very good for a long, long time. Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker - two names familiar to Canadian fans - were outstanding as leaders on this team, and you can see that these two players will most likely form the next wave of captains for Team USA.

Alex Carpenter, who captained this American team, was also a factor in each game. Molly Schaus of the CWHL's Boston Blades and Alex Rigsby of the NCAA's University of Wisconsin Badgers provided excellent goaltending all tournament long despite Rigsby's loss to Canada in the preliminary stage, the only blemish on a great round-robin round for Team USA. Monique Lamoureux, who played without her sister on this team, was a force on the blue line, and Megan Bozek was excellent in rushing the puck and acting as a fourth forward in some situations.

I was especially impressed with newcomers Haley Skarupa of Boston College and Shiann Darkangelo of Quinnipiac University. Skarupa was always buzzing around the net, and it seemed like whenever there was a loose it was on her stick moments later. She is a bundle of energy and looks like she'll be a fixture on Team USA going forward. Darkangelo played the game "the right way" - she went to high-traffic areas, she didn't shy away from puck battles, and she stood in front of goalies fearlessly. Darkangelo may not have had the most points in his tournament, but she's going to the right places to make that happen and should be featured on the American team as we get closer to 2018.

Canada, for its tournament, featured a pile of new players as Hockey Canada looked to get a few new players on the international stage. Geneviève Lacasse handled the majority of the goaltending responsibilities as she looks to establish herself against Team Canada mainstays Shannon Szabados and Charline Labonté. Lacasse was the third goalie in Sochi, so this tournament was an opportunity to get in a pile of work on the international scene.

Defencemen Erin Ambrose of the CWHL's Montreal Stars and Halli Krzyzaniak of the NCAA's University of North Dakota played extremely well while flanked by returning Team Canada players Laura Fortino, Tara Watchorn, and Jocelyne Larocque. Canada, who didn't lose a game in advancing to the Four Nations Cup final, relied heavily on solid defensive play, and these players stood out.

Speedster Jamie Lee Rattray of the CWHL's Brampton Thunder made an impression up front along with Cornell University's Jill Saulnier and Toronto Furies' Kelly Terry. Speed and determination, especially on Rattray's part, kept pressure on every team when these three were on the ice, and they showed why Canada should be excited about the next wave of players coming through the Hockey Canada program. It was also great to see Bailey Bram back out in Team Canada colours, and you could see that her time over in Sweden with Linkopings has made her a much more complete player. Bram was solid all tournament, and she should be back in the discussion for Canada moving forward.

Canada and the US met in the final tonight - yet again - as Canada was vying for its 14th Four Nations Cup title while the Americans were shooting for their sixth championship. Canada won last year in Lake Placid, NY so there was a chance to not only avenge that loss for the Americans, but a chance to avenge the heartbreaking loss in Sochi. This would be the first meeting for any sort of hardware since that gold medal game. Canada advanced to the final with a win over Finland while the Americans dispatched Sweden in their semi-final match.

Jennifer Wakefield opened the scoring for Canada at the 15:46 mark of the first period when she deflected a puck past Molly Schaus on the power-play with Megan Keller watching from the penalty box for hooking. The American team protested that Wakefield's stick was above the crossbar - and to their credit, it did appear to be so - but there is no video replay at the Four Nations Cup so the goal stood. The Americans, to their credit, carried the play for the majority of the first period, closing out the frame with an 8-4 lead in shots. Had it not been for Lacasse, it easily could have been a 2-1 or 3-1 lead for the Americans.

The second period got off with a bang as Brianna Decker converted a Kendall Coybe pass into a goal, finding space between Lacasse and the post to make it a 1-1 game just 50 seconds in. Again, the Americans carried the play in the second period, and this time it benefited them. Hilary Knight - the new Cammi Granato for the Americans - fired a puck past Lacasse on a gorgeous breakaway at 9:08 to put Team USA up 2-1. Canada, however, would get that one back before the end of the period as Jennifer Wakefield picked up her second goal of the contest at the 17:49 mark when she fired a puck past Schaus off a great feed from Natalie Spooner to knot the game at 2-2 as Canada picked up the pace in the second half of the period. Shots at the end of the period favored Canada 11-8.

The third period was back-and-forth, and the shot clock once again favored the Americans 10-5. Lacasse and Schaus both stood tall, however, and the game would remain tied at 2-2 through the final frame so it was off to overtime. Another twenty minutes of scoreless but incredible hockey would be recorded, so this game came down to the skills competition.

It's hard to fathom that Brianne Jenner, who has a history of big goals against the Americans, was going to be left off this squad, but she wasn't going until the week before the tournament started. Marie-Philip Poulin was unable to play in Kamloops because of an undisclosed injury suffered in an NCAA game when her Boston University Terrier battled the Maine Black Bears. With Poulin out, Hocky Canada called on Jenner, and she gave them every reason to keep calling.

After both shooters were denied in the opening round of the shootout and Lacasse stopped the second American shooter, Jenner cruised in on her chance, faked and went backhand while Schaus dropped, and she found the back of the net to put Canada up 1-0. Jenner's remarkable ability to score timely goals against the Americans had struck again!

The Americans turned to their best player in Hilary Knight for a chance to keep the game going. Knight and her smooth skating broke in on Lacasseand fired a shot, but Lacasse's glove save stopped the big American's shot, giving Canada the Four Nations Cup title in another 3-2 finish!

In the third-place game, Sweden's Jenni Asserholt scored exactly nine minutes into overtime to give the Swedes a 2-1 victory over their rivals from Finland. Both teams got incredible performances from their goaltenders - Sweden's Kim Martin Hasson and Finland's Eveliina Suonpaa - and these two teams played some great hockey against the world's two best teams in this tournament. The gap between North America and the rest of the world is getting smaller, and tournaments like this help those nations who are looking to catch Canada and the USA.

Congratulations to Team Canada on winning the Four Nations Cup, to Team USA for capturing the silver medal, to Sweden for picking up the bronze medal, and to Finland for putting scares into the three other teams! This was a fantastic tournament of women's hockey, and if you're not watching it, you're missing out on some incredible rivalries and action!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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