The United States beat Finland 3-1 to open the Olympic women’s hockey tourney on Friday. Hilary Knight shone with two points for the 2010 silver medalists.
Kelli Stack added a single for the powerhouse Americans. The 2013 World Champions are gunning for their first Winter Games gold medal since Nagano 1998.
Star Finnish goalie Noora Räty elected to conserve her energy by skipping last night’s spectacular opening ceremonies at the Fisht Stadium. (The 24-year-old three-time Olympian explained before the game: “There is no point in going, just standing [around for] eight hours. I’ve been there twice.”)
It was a prudent decision as the U.S. – showcasing its superior speed, skill, and size – forced Räty to make 40 saves. Vetter had 14 stops for her fourth career Olympic win.
“We knew they had a great goaltender, which is why the score was so close,” said the U.S.’s Kendall Coyne.
Susanna Tapani replied for the Finns, who earned the bronze medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Their last IIHF medal was also bronze at the 2011 Worlds; they finished fourth the last two years.
These two opponents have had some hard-fought encounters recently. The Finns upset the Americans 3-1 in the Four Nations tournament in Lake Placid in November, with Räty making 58 saves. That made Finland the first country other than Canada ever to beat the Americans in a non-medal round game at an elite international tournament.
“We’ve had them on our minds since then,” said Knight. “We lost that game and it hurt. We’ve been itching to go at them again since then.”
En route to capturing gold at the 2013 Worlds in Ottawa, the U.S. downed Finland 4-2 in round-robin play and 3-0 in the semi-finals.
These Olympics didn’t start well for Finnish coach Mika Pieniniemi’s squad. The Americans drew blood on their very first shot after assistant captain Emma Terho put the puck up the middle and gave it away to Knight. She broke in alone and beat Räty high on the blocker side just 53 seconds in.
Terho (nee Laaksonen) is participating in her fifth Winter Olympics, along with teammate Karoliina Rantamäki. American veteran Julie Chu is now a four-time Olympian dating back to Salt Lake City 2002.
“We believe in ourselves more now [than in the past], so when they scored early, we didn’t get down or feel we were going to lose,” said Rantamäki. “We didn’t give up, but it is never good to be scored on so early.”
The Americans, who outshot Finland 14-3 in the first period, couldn’t capitalize on their first two power plays. Rantamäki tested Vetter on a nice rush down left wing, but overall, the Finns struggled, continuing to make some sloppy passes.
In the second period, the U.S. siege continued. Shots favoured the Americans 18-4.
“We stressed our defensive play and making quick passes out to let the forwards do what they can do,” said U.S. blueliner Megan Bozek. “I think our forwards are the fastest in the world. We wanted to get the puck deep, get around their defence, and pressure them.”
Near the four-minute mark, Amanda Kessel, an Olympic rookie, dipsy-doodled her way past the Finnish defence in a style reminiscent of her brother, Toronto Maple Leafs star and U.S. Olympian Phil Kessel, and rang one off the crossbar.
At 7:42, the U.S. went up 2-0 as Knight put the puck high across the crease from next to Räty’s left post to Stack. It deflected off Stack’s left shoulder before she hit it out of mid-air over the goal line. Referee Nicole Hertrich conducted a video review and the goal was deemed good.
With just over four minutes left in the middle frame, the Americans grabbed a 3-0 lead on the power play. Defenceman Anne Schleper hammered the puck off the glass and it deflected behind the net to Carpenter, whose beautiful bad-angle shot from the goal line beat Räty.
Räty looked a little shaken up toward the end of the middle frame when U.S. forward Brianna Decker’s stick inadvertently came up and caught her in the neck area. However, she carried on, stopping another 10 shots in the third period.
It’s what you’d expect of a woman who had the 17th-century Finnish battle cry “Hakka paalle!” inscribed on the back of her goalie mask before the Olympics.
With 4:38 remaining, the Finns spoiled Vetter’s shutout bid 25 seconds into their second power play of the afternoon. Tapani, making her Olympic debut, converted a lovely cross-crease feed from Michelle Karvinen as Vetter lunged across too late.
The Finns pulled Räty in the dying stages but couldn’t do any more damage.
“I thought they got some lucky bounces and we have to feel confident after that game,” said Finland’s Mira Jalasuo. “For the second and third goals they had some lucky rebounds and I’m confident that we can beat them. Hopefully we’ll get them in the semi-final and we’ll be ready for them. Hopefully we’ll get more power plays as well – we only had two today and we scored from one.”
Finnish forward Riikka Välilä (nee Nieminen) became the oldest player ever to participate in Olympic women’s hockey at 40 years and 241 days. However, the 2010-inducted IIHF Hall of Famer’s hold on the record will be short-lived, as Russian veteran Ekaterina Pashkevich will break it when she faces Germany on Sunday.
Things won’t get any easier for the Finns, who face defending Olympic champion Canada on Monday. The U.S. takes on Switzerland that day.
IHLC: With the win, the Americans retain the International Hockey Lineal Championship in their opening Olympic defence. The U.S. won their 27th IHLC from Canada in a 5-1 win at the first of four pre-Olympic exhibition games in Calgary on December 12, and swept the series in the following four games in Grand Forks, Saint Paul and Toronto. This was the first Olympics where the U.S. were incoming IHLC champions since the 2002 Salt Lake Games. The U.S. next faces Switzerland in Group A play with the IHLC on the line.
00:53 – GOAL – Knight
01:22 – PEN – Lindstedt, hooking
13:04 – PEN – Tikkinen, interference
27:42 – GOAL – Stack (Knight, Bozek)
29:02 – PEN – Kilponen, holding
34:32 – PEN – Hovi, holding
35:59 – PP GOAL – Carpenter (Schleper)
36:26 – PEN – Knight, hooking
54:57 – PEN – Decker, hooking
55:52 – PP GOAL – Tapani (Karvinen)
W: Vetter (14-15)
L: Räty (40-43)
SHOTS ON GOAL
15+18+10 = 43
3+4+8 = 15
Goaltenders: Molly Schaus, Jessie Vetter. Defence: Kacey Bellamy, Megan Bozek, Gigi Marvin, Michelle Picard, Josephine Pucci, Anne Schleper, Lee Stecklein. Forwards: Alexandra Carpenter, Julie Chu, Kendall Coyne, Brianna Decker, Meghan Duggan (C), Lyndsey Fry, Amanda Kessel, Hilary Knight, Jocelyne Lamoureux, Monique Lamoureux, Kelli Stack.
Goaltenders: Meeri Räisänen, Noora Räty. Defence: Jenni Hiirikoski (C), Mira Jalosuo, Anna Kilponen, Emma Laaksonen (A), Rosa Lindstedt, Saija Tarkki (A). Forwards: Venla Hovi, Michelle Karvinen, Riikka Nieminen, Emma Nuutinen, Anniina Rajahuhta, Karoliina Rantamäki, Vilma Tanskanen, Susanna Tapani, Nina Tikkinen, Minnamari Tuominen, Linda Välimäki, Tea Villilä.