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2021 Women’s Worlds: Canada looks to rebound from bronze setback

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Over two years later, the best women’s hockey players in the world get a chance to fight for gold.

IHOCKEY-WC-IIHF-FIN-CAN Photo credit should read JUSSI NUKARI/AFP via Getty Images

If the beginning of 2020 feels like a lifetime ago because of everything we have gone through, imagine how it feels to be a member of Canada’s women’s hockey team. April, 2019 was when they had their most disappointing senior best-on-best tournament ever.

Their bronze medal victory over Russia in 2019 may have ended their tournament on a winning note, but it was far from a tournament they will look back on fondly. To make matters worse, they had to wait 859 days for a chance to get back on the ice in a tournament game.

Canadian hockey teams in best-on-best competitions — especially on the women’s side — aren’t built to win bronze. Perhaps masked by an Olympic win in 2014, Canada hasn’t won a women’s world championship since 2012 (a span of five tournaments since it is not played in Olympic years, and was not played in 2020). The Americans’ run at Worlds — eight gold medals in the last nine tournaments — has now extended to the Olympics, where they won in 2018 for the first time since 1998.

What was once a two-country battle has become a group of three. Finland is very much in the picture, and has a valid argument to feel like they should be the defending World Champions after what would have been a championship-winning overtime goal was controversially disallowed before they lost in a shootout.

It means that tournaments are no longer a coronation to an eventual North American showdown for the gold medal. Every game matters, and decisions that didn’t make much of a difference in the past are now looked at under a very different light.

Canada and Finland played on Wednesday in a pre-tournament game that Canada won 4-1 (the game was closer; two of Canada’s goals were empty-net goals as Finland pushed for a comeback). Both teams’ top two goaltenders played in that game, and the nations rolled their lineups. As this is their first international tournament — and for some players their first game action — in a long time, we can expect teams to improve as the tournament goes on.

Those two teams also open their tournament against each other in Calgary on TSN and NHL Network Friday at 6:00 p.m. Eastern.

Goaltending changes abound

Canada and Finland will both see a changing of the guard in goal for this tournament. Finland will be without Noora Räty, their star goaltender. Räty played five of Finland’s seven games in 2019, and who will end up being the go-to goaltender in this tournament for the Finns is up in the air. Both Anni Keisala and Meeri Raisanen played well against Canada (both players allowed one goal) in pre-tournament play. Keisala got the first half of Wednesday’s game but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Raisanen start Friday.

For Canada, Shannon Szabados isn’t on the roster, which means the attention likely turns to Ann-Renée Desbiens and Emerance Maschmeyer. Both players train in Montreal, and are joined by a new face in Kristen Campbell. Desbiens actually was Campbell’s goalie coach at the University of Wisconsin when Desbiens took a year off. Like Keisala, Desbiens started the game for Canada, but allowed Finland’s only goal and Maschmeyer shut the door in the game’s second half. I would expect a rotation throughout the tournament.

Szabados was Canada’s go-to goaltender for many big games since she started the gold medal game at the 2010 Olympics. Canada’s crease has always been a competitive place to be starting with Lesley Reddon and Manon Rhéaume battling for the net in Nagano 1998, leading to the era of Sami Jo Small and Kim St-Pierre, then St-Pierre and Charline Labonté before Szabados joined the competition, with Maschmeyer, Desbiens, and Geneviève Lacasse involved in the battle.

The Americans are the only one of the three favourites to bring back their goaltender as Alex Cavallini is expected to be their starter for the second straight tournament. They have depth as well, though. Nicole Hensley had a great Secret Cup in PWHPA action earlier this year. The third goaltender was supposed to be Maddie Rooney, who led the Americans to gold in 2018, but injury forced her out. Up and comer Aerin Frankel will be the third goalie.

A young defence for Canada

Canada’s defence has undergone a changing of the guard for this Olympic cycle, and especially this World Championship. Veterans Laura Fortino and Brigette Lacquette were left off the centralization roster, and Meaghan Mikkelson suffered an injury at the PWHPA’s Secret Cup and is out. That means that Jocelyne Larocque becomes the leader of Canada’s blue line. Larocque, 33, has 36 World Championship games under her belt which is more experience than the rest of the six defenders combined. Erin Ambrose and Renata Fast, both 26, are not far removed from being the newcomers to the national team and will be expected to take a leadership role on this team. They are joined by returning Worlds player Jaime Bourbonnais and three first-timers: Ella Shelton, Claire Thompson, and Ashton Bell.

For an indication of how quickly things can change, only Larocque and Fast were on Canada’s 2018 Olympic roster. Larocque was sat out of Canada’s pre-tournament game in an effort to give the more inexperienced players a bit of international action prior to the tournament.

Mix of young and old up front

While the familiar names on defence may be few and far between, up front there is a lot of familiarity. Captain Marie-Philip Poulin leads an experienced Canadian forward group that includes Brianne Jenner, Natalie Spooner, Blayre Turnbull, Rebecca Johnston, and 2018 Olympic MVP Mélodie Daoust, among others.

Poulin missed most of the 2019 Worlds after recovery from an injury sustained that year with the CWHL’s Canadiennes (in case you really needed a reminder of how long it has been since these games happened). She attempted to play against Russia in preliminary play, but aggravated the injury, and that kept her out the rest of the way. She skated in pre-tournament play with Jenner and youngster Victoria Bach in what should be a line to watch for the tournament.

That means her two long-time linemates, Daoust and Emily Clark, are on different lines. Daoust skated with newcomer-to-watch Sarah Fillier and Spooner, while Clark played with Johnston and Turnbull.

Some combination of Emma Maltais, Sarah Nurse, Jill Saulnier, Jamie Lee Rattray, Laura Stacey, and Kristin O’Neill will likely fill out the lineup, which is an embarrassment of riches and provides new head coach Troy Ryan with a lot of options.

The IIHF has allowed up to 22 skaters and three goaltenders on each team’s roster, which means two players and one goalie have to sit out every game (IIHF rules allow 20 skaters). Canada sat out Campbell, Larocque, Stacey, and O’Neill on Wednesday.

Not looking ahead to the Olympics

It’s only natural when the calendar turns towards the Olympics to think of the World Championships as an opportunity to prepare for that event. Canada’s coach and players all said that is not the case, with Ryan saying that it’s natural that some portion of the tournament will be used for preparation due to it being at the start of the team’s centralization, the Olympics will only be a priority starting in September.

“I think it would be a bit of a knock against the World Championships to fully consider this as a tune up,” Ryan said. “We’re here to win a World Championship, that’s first and foremost. That’s our priority.”

FRIDAY’S SCHEDULE

GROUP A
6:00 p.m. EDT — Canada vs Finland (TSN 1/4, NHL Network (US))
9:30 p.m EDT — United States vs Switzerland (TSN4, NHL Network (US))

GROUP B
2:00 p.m. EDT — Denmark vs Czech Republic (TSN 1/4)