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Women’s World U18 Update: Team USA Cruises Through Prelim Round at Historic Pace

Team USA closed out the preliminary round of the Women’s World U18 championships with a 7-0 drubbing of their rival Canada, a result that was almost as surprising as it was dominating.

In total, the US won all three games of the preliminary round by a combined score of 18-1 to cruise to first place in Group A and earn a bye into the semifinal round.

I don’t want to get too far ahead of things, because ultimately this team will be judged by what happens in the medal round. And despite the dominating nature of the three US wins in the preliminary round, beating a team with a medal on the line is still a different story. I mentioned last night on Twitter the 2018 tournament, in which the US beat Canada 6-2 in the prelim round—which at the time felt about as big of a margin as you could have in one of these games—and the US still had to come from behind to beat that Canada team in a shootout in the semifinal of that tournament, in what was one of the greatest US-Canada games at any level of the sport.

But these three prelim games didn’t really lend themselves to any type of deep analysis, beyond the US was just a much, much better team than all three of their opponents. So it’s worth putting some historical context into the numbers.

There’s not a deep history to run through with this tournament. The IIHF only began sponsoring it in 2008, and it wasn’t until the 2015 tournament that they switched formats to have the top four teams play in the same preliminary round group. Prior to that, it was pretty common for both the US and Canada to cruise through the prelims with lopsided goal differentials.

Here were the preliminary round goal differentials for the US and Canada since they began playing in the same group in 2015:

2015—US +10/Canada +6

2016-US +15/Canada +11

2017-US +8/Canada +7

2018-US +7/Canada -1

2019- US +4/Canada +4

2020-Canada +5/US +3

2022-US +17/Canada -7

So it was a 24-goal difference between the two teams this year, with the previous biggest difference between the two being three times smaller.

I’ve seen people ask how this year’s U18 team compares to some of the past U18 teams, and while I don’t think anyone really knew for sure coming into the tournament, just looking at those statistics, you’d have to say they’re one of the best.

My frame of reference is fairly limited, only going back to about 2015 or so, but my closest comparable team would be that 2018 US team. That year’s team was led by a very strong 2000 birth year, which included three-time gold medalists Taylor Heise, Gracie Ostertag, and Madeline Wethington, and were bolstered by a really strong 2002 group with Abbey Murphy, Makenna Webster, and Maggie Nicholson.

This year’s team is similar. I hesitated to say it earlier because Covid wiped out so much competition data, but the 2004 birth year looks to be incredibly strong. In addition to 2020 U18s returners Kirsten Simms and Dani Burgen, Laila Edwards and Sydney Morrow have emerged as elite, game-breaking players in the age group. And youngsters Maggie Scannell, Finley McCarthy, and Josie St. Martin look like really elite talents that I think have given this team a depth they don’t normally have.

The other half of the equation that I think you have to look at is the competition. As good as this American team has been, I also think the other teams in the tournament are a little bit down as well.

One of the big questions coming into the tournament was how would everyone react to the nearly-two-year break forced by the Covid pandemic. You can debate whether it’s the result of the US taking Covid restrictions less seriously than some other countries, but it’s pretty clear the US came out of it at full speed while everyone else is playing catch-up.

Or maybe the rest of the world is just a little bit down talent-wise. In the 2018 Tournament, for as good as the US was, they were competing against a Canada team that had a future star in Sarah Fillier and a very strong 2001 birth year that would go on to win the tournament the following year. I don’t think there is another Fillier on this year’s Canadian team. And while I don’t think the loss of Jade Iginla to injury just prior to the tournament was a fortune-changing loss, I don’t think it helped a team that was already a little out-gunned to begin with.

The third thing I’d point out is that the US is playing on home soil this year, which I think makes a difference compared to being halfway across the world in a completely different time zone. The US was able to strike early in all three games, and with decent home crowds behind them, it’s been easy to keep that momentum rolling.

But however you want to weight the different combination of factors, there’s no question that this year’s U18 is really, really good, and it has been really fun to watch them steamroll the competition. Moreso, after an extremely disappointing Olympics this past February, it’s a refreshing palate-cleanser to see the US play the type of punishing, physical style they’ll need to play to close the gap on Canada at the senior level.