As Bobby Savoy says in The Natural, here goes nothing.
The International Ice Hockey Federation is hosting its annual Women’s World Championship starting this Thursday April 4th in Espoo, Finland, and the media seems even more allergic to the event than usual.
Try a total lack of news and analysis on 8 out of 10 national teams, outside of overseas sites in foreign languages that Google translates into stuff like “Suzuki set sail with the puck on a watermelon.”
It’s time for drastic measures, like writing a bloody preview myself.
The WWC is swinging on 2 strikes when it comes to press coverage. The tournament involves female athletes, and it is not the Winter Olympics. International hockey seldom makes headlines in America save for a fortnight every 4 years.
NHL fans dismiss the global game, snarking that the national teams aren’t icing “best on best.” That’s true enough in men’s competitions. Sidney Crosby hasn’t skated in the Worlds since 2015 and may not play in the Olympic Games again.
But it’s not true on the women’s side, which has no Gary Bettman to screw the top pros out of making history. The distaff Worlds are indeed “best on best.”
When the annual men’s showdown is over we know who abides the toughest hockey culture, but the women’s tourney leaves no doubt whom the planet’s best players are. That makes the WWC superior in some respects and a dream scenario for fans. Not enough journalists seem to notice.
Ice Garden publishes in-depth analysis of national women’s teams, which is awesome, but it appears the site may be waiting for the Federation to approve and display official rosters for the upcoming pond shinny in April, so that Wikipedia and Elite Prospects (both open-source edits) are not relied upon. But knowing the IIHF, that’s like sitting in Upper Manhattan waiting for hubcaps to rust.
USA Hockey manufactures feel-good PR on Yankee skaters prior to the WWC, but has a brutal reputation in women’s hockey and serves as the “Judge” watching the New York Knights, or in this case the NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters, from a shadowy office upstairs.
So hopefully no one in the IIHF community will be offended by a humble WagerBop pundit breaking the ice.
Speaking of punditry, the Women’s World Championship may get a lot more interesting to handicap over the next few cycles. Starting in 2019.
From Sea to Shining Sea Change
The level of play in women’s hockey is improving by leaps and bounds. Much like WNBA and NCAAW hoops, the sport is beginning to make its haters look stupid.
There will always be the guy in a speakeasy calling Hilary Knight a “terrible” skater, claiming that his Beer League club could beat Team USA. His ignorance is matched by his hubris, since the USWNT practices against boys’ prep teams filled with pro prospects. American team captain Kendall Coyne-Schofield – all of 5’2” and 125 pounds – skated alongside NHLers in the Chicago Pro Hockey League last summer and scored 14 points. (Try asking a standard-issue hater to produce video of himself leading an undersized squad over Pope Francis Prep, or lining-up across from Alex DeBrincat and notching a goal and an assist.)
She’s pretty fast, too.
Coyne-Schofield plays in the NWHL. So does Amanda Kessel, another of the world’s great female playmakers. The National Women’s Hockey League provides a professional environment for growth, while the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) has often forced its talent to self-fund much of their journey.
The superior training of the Americans has led to a slow-but-seismic shift in the power structure of women’s hockey.
From Y2K through the early 2010s, the United States and Canada plowed through European opposition and met in “intramural” gold medal games that were almost too-perfectly matched in style and form. Also-rans like Japan were humiliated by the Westerners, and the division was in danger of being “killed” by lack of intrigue in much the same way that Team USA softball had dominated its way out of fashion.
Things started to change in 2013, when the United States began winning every gold medal at the World Championships and at the Four Nations Cup. Canada mounted the high podium at the Olympics in 2014, but the Americans triumphed at the 2018 PyeongChang Games thanks to forward Jocelyne Lamoureux’s lovely shoot-out goal at :39 of the clip below.
Countries like Japan have learned how to defend, causing IIHF scores to tighten. Meanwhile, a clear 3rd-best powerhouse has been emerging across the pond, and will be a tough out as host nation of this year’s Worlds.
When Every Tournament is a “4 Nations” Cup
Finland has developed enough speed and skill to produce 20+ shots against the champs in a given 60 minutes. But Suomi’s real advantage is having goaltender Noora Räty, arguably the best distaff netminder in hockey.
The brilliant 29-year old plays pro hockey in China, and her state-side obscurity helps speculators catch London and Las Vegas napping on the Lady Lions every so often.
Räty makes it almost impossible for weak rivals to score, and has rattled the North Americans with shut-out frames. Finland beat Canada 4-3 at the 2017 World Championships behind 35 saves from Räty. In a 2013 Four Nations Cup game, the United States lost to Finland 3-1 when the phenom saved 58 out of 59 shots.
Bronze medals have flowed like bitter champagne. You’ve got to think Räty wants badly to reach a gold medal tilt (at least) before she’s past her prime.
Is there a solid 4th-best women’s country? You can make a case for Team Russia. The “Pink Machine” has appeared in the bronze medal game at the WWC in 4 of the last 6 cycles, and gave Finland all it could handle before falling 3-2 to finish 4th in South Korea.
If the top 4 finishes in a major women’s event aren’t USA, Canada, Finland and Russia in that specific order, it’s a surprise.
Russia is also 4th in the IIHF Women’s World Rankings above Switzerland in 5th, as illustrated by the Federation’s round-robin pools. The squads in Group B are competing to join Group A for the medal chase beginning on April 11th.
Gamblers will be interested to know that Bovada Sportsbook’s handicappers prefer to calculate “quick-draw” markets on most IIHF games as opposed to futures.
Bettors drawn to the AM-hour broadcasts should be able to speculate on any number of Group A and Group B outcomes, including fat Vegas lines on the Canadians, Finns and Russians to upset squads ranked above them.
That’s a great excuse to look at all 10 teams in Finland.
2019 Women’s World Championship: Group A
Except that the squad must deal with the pressure of dynasty-level success, there is little not to like about the USA bid this year. The Yanks steamrolled the most-recent Four Nations Cup in November, leading Canada 4-1 after 2 periods as Knight and Coyne-Schofield combined for 4 points in the decisive romp.
Canada has been eclipsing Russia at the men’s Worlds thanks to superior defense, goaltending (with exception of last year’s fiasco), and transition play. The United States maintains a similar edge over Canada in women’s hockey.
Kessel, Coyne-Schofield, Brianna Decker, and leading NWHL point-scorer Hayley Scamurra are about to electrify spectators in Espoo. But goaltender Maddie Rooney is a rock, and sleek defender Kacey Bellamy is an assistant captain for the 4-time defending champs.
Team USA opens the WWC against host Finland on 4/4.
Only one entry on the Maple Leaf roster has “NWHL” next to it, but it’s a doozy.
Goalie Shannon Szabados of the Buffalo Beauts has won 2 Olympic gold medals with Team Canada, once posting a stratospheric .980 save % over 3 games in Vancouver in 2010. Szabados is also noteworthy for having played in the WHL and several men’s minor leagues, making her one of the most accomplished Hungarian-Canadian athletes in history.
Here’s the veteran standing on her head against the Americans in a recent exhibition.
— Women’s Sports Highlights (@WSportHilites) February 17, 2019
Can the squad score enough goals to beat the USA in April? Marie-Philip Poulin of Les Canadiennes de Montréal is a goal-per-game sniper and a powerhouse at the WWC. But strip-away a quintet of NCAA players and a strong plurality of the Canuck roster is comprised of Poulin’s teammates.
It reminds me of the “OAR” men’s team in PyeongChang that was basically St. Petersburg of the KHL plus a few odds and ends. I’m not prepared to handicap a souped-up club roster to snap a losing streak against a team of All-Stars, but Canadian pride runs so deep that they’re always a threat.
Team Canada opens against Switzerland, also on Thursday.
The Lady Lions have nary a skater from the NWHL, but that’s good news in that it shows women’s club hockey in Europe is emerging. Countries like Japan and Germany may send a few token stars to North America, but they still can’t keep up with the Finns.
Swedish-league forward Susanna Tapati scored 9 points in the 2017 WWC as a speedy Finland roster matched the Yanks, Habs and Ruskies stride-for-stride in entertaining games.
But the team skated in mud in PyeongChang, blowing early momentum against the United States and nearly folding-up with bling on the line.
Maybe a raucous home stand will set the Finns alight once more. Noora seems to think so, even though this video was produced by the people who air those tourist infomercials on PBS at 3 in the morning the IIHF:
The proud Russians struggled to score at the 2017 WWC, then-teenage forward Fanuza Kadirova’s 3 goals nearly out-tallying her 20+ comrades.
Kadirova plays for a new domestic club called SK Gorny Ukhta, and we all know how much trouble the Gorn can be.
Alas, the youngster was held scoreless at the Olympics.
Russian goaltender Valeria Merkusheva is a dynamite magician who bakes bunt cakes on the blue line. Whoops – using Google Translate again.
It would help if Russia’s talented wingers could receive a few passes in transition. The team’s defenders must improve with the puck in order to contend in ’19.
The Eisgenossinnen are stubbornly holding onto a 5th-place World Ranking, but the program isn’t trending up like Russia or Finland. The squad consistently fails to position itself to win medals.
Switzerland is captained by Livia Altmann of the Colgate Raiders, and GK Janine Alder is still a young player at age 23. But she’ll take over for Florence Schelling, a former Olympic MVP who retired last season.
Head coach Daniela Diaz is one of a pair of female skippers at the 2019 Worlds alongside Ylva Martinsen of Sweden.
2019 Women’s World Championship: Group B
Tre-Kronor also needs to start trending up again, and fast.
Jessica Adolfsson of Penn State could help spark a program that hasn’t medaled in the Worlds since 2007. The defender has excelled at Happy Valley and was a playoff hero in the Swedish league as a teenager.
The Czechs have lagged in a sport where checking is mostly against the rules, only qualifying for the elite WWC a few years ago. But the 2017 squad was filled with NCAA players, some of whom have since carved-out roles in the NWHL.
“CZE” could be a mean moneyline go-to in the round-robin if sportsbooks only look at past trends and not developing talent. We might see the Czech Republic in Group A before too long.
If you think the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers are the most heartwarming team in sports, you’ve never seen “Smile Japan” celebrate a goal.
Unfortunately the bows come so rarely that the bough tends to break.
Japan’s goal-scoring woes cripple an otherwise healthy program that emphasizes strong skating and fundamentals.
Stocky defender Aina Mizukami is a mainstay for the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno.
A wild goose chase is always fun. In fact, it seems a very French pastime somehow.
Google informs me that 3 of Team France’s skaters hail from “Montreal University,” or at least play for an amateur club attached to the institution. I’m not familiar, so I click into the vortex.
“One Carabins player have (sic) participated internationally,” explains the Wiki.
I’ll assume that the page haven’t hasn’t been updated since call-ups for the new French roster began, but all our baseless assumptions are belong to us.
France is a new qualifier for the WWC and will fight to avoid relegation.
“French and Germans, I’ve reserved a spot for you. I’m sure you’ll find plenty to talk about.” – Rowan Atkinson as the Devil
Germany has earned a reputation as a rock-bottom riser, sent to toil in a lower division twice over the past decade but rebounding to finish 4th at the Worlds in 2017.
The team also boasts one of the cooler nicknames in either gender of pond shinny, “The Eagle Carriers,” or Träger der Adler.
Imposing 18-year-old Tabea Botthof of Yale University played 2 years ago as a padawan and may be more prepared to lead the blue line this time around.
But like the Japanese, the Germans often struggle to score goals at the top level…and the nation’s goaltenders are not skilled to world class.
Post No Bills (or the Beauts Instead)
Gamblers tuning-in to the WWC should remember that a “hot” goaltender gives a team the added strength of a wholesale upgrade, if only temporarily. It’s as if one side’s goalposts shrink closer and the other’s get wider-apart.
Hockey is attacking, defending, and a goalie. Icing an elite netminder in the “zone” is like having 4 lines of Coyne-Schofields on offense or 3 pairs of Larry Robinsons on D.
Even Switzerland could pull a major upset in 2019 if Alder gets into a groove between the pipes. There’s still no parity to speak of, but each team in the medal hierarchy has an upstart warming its throne.
This ain’t your mom’s World Championship…even if moms will be lighting the lamp.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.