SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 12: Anne Schleper #15 of the United States celebrates after setting up Hilary Knight #21 (Not Pictured)to score a goal in the second period against Canada during the Women's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group A game on day five of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Shayba Arena on February 12, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
One of the drawbacks of the new pool system that the IIHF is using for women’s hockey in the Sochi Olympics is that the top two teams from Pool A were forced to have four days off between games. Those two teams were Canada and the United States, who received automatic byes into the semi-finals, which will be contested Monday.
For the Canadians, they will battle Switzerland, who pulled off what may be the upset of the Olympics when they knocked off Russia on Saturday morning by a score of 2-0. Earlier in the tournament, the Swiss dropped games both to Canada, a 5-0 whitewash, and the United States, a 9-0 beatdown. The win was their first of the Games, and sets them up to make more history against a potent Canadian squad.
For the Americans, their semifinal opponent isn’t a squad that they have played before in the tournament. They will face off on Monday against Sweden, who pulled off an improbable 4-2 victory over favored Finland on Saturday morning. Sweden ended up going 2-1 in Pool B play, and they have received several big performances from their key players. Pernilla Winberg had three assists in the victory over Finland, and had two goals in pool play for the Swedes. Emma Nordin tied her for most goals in the Olympics with two.
Valentina Wallner has been a rock star in goal for the Swedish side, giving up only five goals in the four games she has played.
As for the Americans, they have plenty of scoring threats that should give them a great chance of setting up a rematch with Canada in Thursday’s gold medal game. Hilary Knight, a University of Wisconsin forward, leads the way with three goals and two assists for the U.S., and close behind her are Kendall Coyne, from Oak Lawn, Illinois, and Amanda Kessel, who each have two goals and two assists so far in the tournament.
Holding down the fort in net for the Americans will be Jessie Vetter, a 28-year old from Cottage Grove, Wisconsin who is playing in her second Olympics with Team USA. She has allowed only four goals in three games, and has stopped 42 of the 46 shots that have come her way.
The real dilemma for the Americans will be whether or not their offense will be able to get into a rhythm early on. Having four days off between games seems like a huge benefit of being one of the top teams in the tournament, but there is a legitimate fear that rust could play a factor, at least in the early going. Sweden is also coming off of an emotional win over Finland, so it is entirely possible that they could come out of the gate strong in Monday’s semi-final matchup.
For the Americans, the key will be to withstand the early pressure that they will face, and to get into an offensive groove as quickly as they can. They move the puck effortlessly through the neutral zone when they are at their best, and their precise passing and overall speed should be more than enough to best the Swedish game plan.
Even still, they have got to be careful that they don’t overlook this bunch. Yes, the prospect of getting another shot at Canada in a gold medal game is a tantalizing one, but the U.S. has got to make sure that they take care of business on Monday morning first. If they can play their game, and they can beat the surprising Swedes, then they should set up a final for the ages later in the week.