Team USA prevailed by a score of 4-1 in their semifinal match-up with Finland early Monday morning to advance and face Canada in the gold medal game of this year’s Olympics. It’s been an uneven, sometimes rocky road to the final against the Canadians, but the US got there and we ended up with the final everyone expected.
While it may not seem like much, I do think this locks in as a minimum a B/B- tournament performance for the United States regardless of last game. While the expectation is always to beat Canada and win gold, I think anyone that has paid even a little attention to head-to-head results heading into the Olympics had Canada has the heavy favorite to win gold. And I also think the odds of one of the other countries sniping off the US prior to the championship was higher than usual.
But they made it, and now they have a shot at gold. Probably not a great shot. But it’s one hockey game and anything can happen.
So how does the United States beat Canada?
The story of this tournament, as it almost always is in the international women’s game, comes down to the United States’ speed and skill, against the strength and toughness of the Canadians.
Re-watching the first game between the two teams, the good news for the United States is that out of the roughly 17,000 square feet on rink, I thought they were the much better team on roughly 16,900 feet of that square footage. The bad news is that they got absolutely killed in the roughly 50 square feet in front of their net, and the 50 square feet in front of Canada’s net—and that is where hockey games are won and lost.
The US was able to generate a lot of shots on net in the first game, but nearly every shot on goal for the United States was a one-and-done. Canada did a tremendous job of getting body on body and tying up sticks in front of the net. The US had a similar problem in their slog against Czechia, where they fired a bazillion shots on goal, but had almost no second-chance opportunities, with the one notable exception being Hilary Knight’s goal, where she drove hard to the net and won a battle to get her stick on a rebound for the goal.
Canada, meanwhile, predicates their offensive attack on getting bodies to the front of the net, and have done a great job getting sticks on second-chance opportunities. That’s a big part of the reason we’ve seen Canada cruise with such easy blowout wins leading into the gold medal games, whereas it has been a slightly tougher road for the US. The rest of the world is starting to catch up in terms of speed, but those countries still don’t have an answer for the size and toughness Canada brings to the game.
None of this is exactly new or groundbreaking analysis. Whether or not the US team could compete in the tough areas of the ice with Canada has been a major question ever since the retirements of some of the 2018 gold medalists from the US squad. And the answer to that, in nearly every instance leading up to this point has been a resounding no. But all of those games have more or less just been a lead up to this one, and if ever there was a time for the US to break that trend, it’s now.
The Power Play
One way to tilt the game in the favor of the United States is winning the special teams battle. And because the US does have an advantage in speed, they will likely get quite a few opportunities on the power play that could swing the game in their favor.
The power play has been less than stellar for the United States on the whole, despite a couple of power play goals sprinkled in. That’s been a bit of a continuing theme for this US team leading up to the Olympics. Canada, in particular, presents a couple distinct challenges for the US power play.
The first is pretty simple and obvious, which is that Canada is faster than every other team, which allows them to attack triggers like mishandled pucks, pucks on the wall, etc. quicker and more often. That means more time spent by the US trying to establish clean possession in the offensive zone than spent attacking once they establish possession. Zone entry and good puck support to set up possession will be a big key to watch.
The second issue comes once the US establishes possession. The US runs an overload power play, where they want to get the puck to a forward on the half-board, giving her options to pass below the goal line, into the slot, or back to the point. They ran it pretty much to perfection on their power play goal against Finland in the semifinal:
That’s about as well as you can run that. But notice the amount of time and space the Finnish defender gives Hilary Knight to work off the wall as she sets up well inside the face-off dot. Knight is able to start moving downhill towards the net, and is a threat to shoot from the dot, which helps open up a passing lane to Brandt at the goal line and Finland is chasing the play from there.
Canada’s strategy on the penalty kill is to be extremely aggressive in attacking that player on the half-wall, trying to blow up Plan A for the US before it can get started, and by-and-large, has been pretty successful at doing so, which is why the US power play can sometimes look so discombobulated against them.
How does the US counter that? First is just an individual skill play. One of the US’s best chances off a set play came when Hannah Brandt took a quick pass on the half-wall and a Canadian defender was a split-second late in getting to Brandt, allowing Brandt to stickhandle around the defender and setting up Hilary Knight at the goal line for a stuff play. It takes crisp, clean puck movement to get Canada off balance like that, but they can use Canada’s aggressiveness against them there.
The other option is that with the way Canada extends their defense out, I think it opens up some passing lanes to get the puck across the ice to the weak side point for a shot from the point. If the US can make that pass—either directly from the player on the wall, or releasing out to the strong-side D and then across—Canada has to bring one of their defensemen to challenge the shot, and the US has time to get a good look. Again, that worked in the second period of their first Olympic meeting, and though it ended with Jocelyne Larocque making a tough shot block, I think that’s a situation the US would love on their power play, especially if they can get some traffic in front, and again because you cannot stress it enough, win some battles for loose pucks in front of the net.
One of the stranger controversies surrounding the US women’s team this Olympics has been the playing time and usage of their defenders. The US has gone to just playing five D since about the midway point of the Canada game with Jincy Dunne and Caroline Harvey not seeing the ice.
It’s probably not a big surprise with Harvey. She’s a terrific skater and will be a big part of USA Hockey’s plans going forward. But it has been pretty clear from beginning that she was along for the experience of being in the Olympics for the future and not to help in the short-term. And there’s nothing wrong with that. She was playing U19 AAA hockey at this time last year. I think the women’s game has grown enough that it’s not realistic any more to expect a player to be capable of making such a huge jump. They gave Harvey one shift early in the Canada game and she committed a penalty that led to a goal.
Dunne is a little more of a surprise, but again, after the Canada game, I can understand it. In about five minutes of ice time, Dunne was largely responsible for two goals against, and probably got away with an infraction that should have erased a power play. I think it would be beneficial to have her offensive ability on the power play, but if the US can’t trust her defensively, it’s hard to justify putting her out there.
Playing five defenders isn’t unmanageable either, especially with the TV timeouts throughout the game. Would it have been nice to spread the ice time around a little more against Czechia and Finland? Sure. But those games were extremely tight and didn’t have much in the way of low-leverage minutes to give to the bottom of their line-up.
Women’s hockey fans have, rather unfairly, had to spend the entire touting justifying whether or not the gap between the top two and the rest of the world is closing at an appropriate rate. Well, this is what the gap closing looks like. The US can’t get away with putting whoever out on the ice against the rest of the world and assume things will be okay. It’s been that way for years at the women’s U18s where it’s not uncommon to see the US lean heavily on just four defensemen in key moments. They’re in China to win a gold medal, not make sure everyone has a fun time.