Who: USA vs. Finland in the Women’s World U18 semifinals
When: 11pm EST
Streaming: Free stream here.
On Wednesday, I watched through Sweden’s game against the United States trying to get a read on line combinations and style of play from the Swedes, presuming they were a likely semifinal opponent for the Americans.
This forethought and diligence all but guaranteed Finland would beat Sweden in the quarterfinals, which they did, in heart-breaking fashion. Evenly-matched all the way through, Sweden took a 2-1 lead with just under 2:30 remaining in regulation. But Finland tied the game on the next shift, and despite Sweden starting the overtime with a 4-on-3 power play, Finland was able to score in overtime and advance. To the entire county of Sweden: I apologize, with no great conviction. Actually, it seems like things are going pretty okay for you over there.
So, it’s Finland that the United States will meet in the semifinal late Friday evening for a spot in the gold medal game of the 2019 Women’s U18 Worlds. Strangely, the US has only met Finland once before in the previous 11 years this tournament has been held. That was a 5-0 US victory in the preliminary round of the 2010 tournament.
Finland won all three of their preliminary games this year in the lower group, though not with ease. They had one-goal wins over host Japan and the Czech Republic, and were tied midway through the third period with Switzerland before winning 4-2.
They’ve found ways to win, but also haven’t seen anything close to approximating the speed of a US or Canada in this tournament. The US should be a pretty heavy favorite in this game, but margins are small due to the low-scoring nature of women’s hockey, and the stakes, with a four-year gold medal streak on the line, are enormous.
Team USA projected line chart:
Team Finland’s projected line chart:
A couple things stood out in regards to Finland, especially in contrasting them with the Swedes.
The first is that the forward group doesn’t really seem to have any big stars like Sweden did with Josefin Bouveng and Lina Ljungblom, but I liked Finland’s depth a little bit more than Sweden’s. I thought Finland’s third line, and even their fourth line early on in the game, gave them some really good shifts against Sweden. Finland will likely need those lower lines to hold steady early to make sure their top lines have fresh legs late in the game.
That said, most of the scoring has come from Finland’s top line. Top line winger Elisa Holopainen leads the tournament in points and goals with 5-2-7 through four games, including the game-winner against Finland. Top line center Viivi Vainikka is second in tournament scoring after racking assists on many of those goals. Though it should be noted overall tournament scoring doesn’t differentiate between playing in the upper or lower divisions of the tournament.
Holopainen is a smaller forward, but very quick when she gets into an attacking position. Working off the other wing is Emilia Vesa, a power forward with pretty decent quickness for her size. Both are really good at generating chances quickly off turnovers.
As you can see from the line chart, the defense is really young. There’s a lot of skill in the group, but the youth shows at times. Laitinen and Rantala are the top pairing and will log heavy minutes. They’re a strong pair with good skating ability, but can be turnover prone under heavy pressure. Timonen is another really skilled offensive defensemen that is super-aggressive pinching up the ice. That sometimes leaves her vulnerable to transition opportunities going the other way.
The youth on the blue line means that the Finns net-front defense isn’t quite as strong as it could be. In a game against the speedy American team, they’ll likely be spending more time hunkered down in their own zone than attacking through the neutral zone, which plays against their strengths. They do help out their defense by keeping a third forward really low in the defensive zone.
In goal, Jaskari has started every game and will likely get the net against the US. Slightly above average in size with good movement. She gave up a big rebound on Sweden’s first goal, which is something that may be worth watching, but overall looked solid and confident in net.
Their power play was a pretty standard overload set-up, run from whichever side of the ice the puck ended up on. Early in the Sweden game, they stacked their two D, with going in the high slot and the other at the top of the point, but shifted to a more traditional two D set-up later in the game.
Overall, this doesn’t strike me as a team built for a shocking upset. The easiest recipe to steal a win would be one or two top players making a big play to get a lead and then building a fortress around the crease to protect that lead. I’m not sure Finland has the ability to do that. But it’s hockey; I’ve seen stranger things happen.
Keys for the US
I feel pretty good about this game if the US can get to two goals. Finland almost certainly isn’t scoring three to win, and the probability of Finland scoring two, surviving an overtime and winning a shootout seem low. The big fear here is the US giving up a flukey goal or two and playing one of those games where they pressure in the Finland zone all game, but never get anything into the net.
With that said, getting as many pucks as possible on net will be important. I expect Finland to pack it in and limit Grade-A chances as much as possible. So fling pucks on net and hope someone in front can out-battle Finland’s defense for a rebound.
The other area that will have to improve is to get the power play going, if not for today, then to make sure it is clicking for a potential gold medal game against Canada. That’s been about the only area for concern for the United States through the preliminary round. They’ll need quicker puck movement and to be more aggressive in attacking seams in the opposition’s penalty kill.